If Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat were a Disney film, it would be Beauty and the Beast. Both are set in quaint mountainside hamlets filled with close-minded people who are led by an equally close-minded and ignorant authority figure. Both set up an opposition between “us” and “them,” in which a stranger threatens the townsfolk’s long-held ideas, but will also inevitably lead them to enlightenment and acceptance. In Chocolat, there is no singing, no talking kitchen appliances, no magical spells, and no Princes; instead, the film has Vianne, a confectioner who is both beauty and beast.
The film begins, “Once upon a time,” as a wide shot focuses your attention on the fictitious town of Lansquenet, nestled atop a mountain in rural France in 1959. Sunday church service is already underway. It is Lent, a time of abstinence, reflection, and penitence, and during the sermon, you are introduced to several of the film’s key players: Caroline Claimont (Carrie-Anne Moss), assistant to mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), plays the piano; her son, Luc (Aurelien Parent-Koening), draws disturbing pictures rather than singing praise; and Guillaume Blerot (John Wood), a quiet elderly gentleman, hides his elderly dog Charlie beneath his coat. It is not until the wind throws open the doors that anyone begins to suspect that something wicked this way comes. Or rather, something different.
Outside the sanctity of the church, two figures wander into town. Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) have visited too many towns in their journeys to recall them all. They seem at ease in their new surroundings, but truth be told, Anouk hates their lifestyle (her feelings manifest themselves in her imaginary kangaroo friend, Pontiff, who is unable to walk as he has an injured leg—one does not need a Ph.D. in psychology to figure this one out). Vianne rents the abandoned patisserie and the vacant upstairs apartment from Amande Voizin (a delightfully surly Judi Dench) and quickly gets to work, cleaning the patisserie, painting the walls a light turquoise, and decorating the shelves and counters with Mayan artifacts. Not a week into her stay, rumors about Vianne begin to circulate: people have heard she’s a radical and an atheist. When Reynaud visits to welcome her to the town and to Catholic worship (and more to the point, to get a sense of this ostensible imposter), she informs him that she and Anouk do not attend church.
From her introduction, Vianne is set up as the nemesis of custom: wearing a red hooded cloak, she is blown into town by the “sly wind” from the North, and displays her curvaceous body with her brightly colored and revealing clothes, to which her red pumps are always the perfect accessory. Vianne is a beautiful sexual creature in a town where temptation of any kind—especially of the flesh—is unwelcome. Shortly after Vianne begins welcoming customers into her store, Chocolaterie Maya, you see she has a unique ability to prescribe what delicatessens will cure their ailments, which, for most of her customers, revolve around matters of the heart. The connection between chocolate and love—and ultimately, sex—is not lost.
Throughout the film, Lansquenet is rendered mystical by lighting, lovely slow motion camerawork, and Rachel Portman’s score, all aspects that subtly enhance Vianne’s increasingly influential but always gentle hold over the town and its inhabitants. Movie cameras love Binoche; Pratt’s is no exception. Her beauty radiates in every scene, and as she encourages others to taste her chocolate and embrace their lives, they too glow, almost literally. After tasting Vianne’s hot chocolate (made from a special 2,000-year-old recipe), Amande immediately takes on a softer, more rosy-cheeked appearance and remains thus throughout the film.
With a single tasty morsel, specially selected for each person, Vianne reignites a lackluster marriage and brings together an elderly man with his lady friend—who, in a testament to the town’s predilection for abstinence, has been mourning her dead husband since 1917. Vianne also supports Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin), who decides to leave her abusive husband—not a decision supported by a town where marriage is sanctified by God and therefore must be revered at all times. While perhaps not an ideal theme to integrate into Disney’s next animated venture, Vianne’s role as sexual pied piper promises tension and growth among the town’s inhabitants, as a few eager folk follow her self-expressive example. In this sense, the film offers Vianne as a challenge to tradition.
Watching over the town square is a statue of Reynaud’s namesake from the 1700s, an ever-present reminder of the strong sense of tradition for which he is now responsible. While he welcomes the new priest, young Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor), Reynaud mourns the end of an era, specifically, the loss of the former priest who was with the church for five decades. To top it off, Reynaud catches Pere Henri practicing his Elvis hip gyrations while sweeping ice from the sidewalk—heaven forbid, the young priest has a thing for American music! All the while, Reynaud struggles secretly, knowing his wife, “traveling” in Europe, has no intention of returning to Lansquenet. He holds tight to his religion as a way to demonstrate his goodness and maintain control over the town. Just as his holy war between “chateâu and chocolatrie” is set into motion, the arrival of the “river rats”—a group of Irish gypsy-like merchants who travel up and down the rivers and live in houseboats—escalates Reynaud’s desire to rid the town of threats to its moral stability.
The introduction of the river rats, with Roux (Johnny Depp) as their fearless leader, is the film’s weakest link. They prove to be only a brief diversion for Reynaud, who soon learns that the riverbank is public property and that he cannot force the river rats to leave; public animosity towards them dissipates, again leaving Vianne the focus of the town’s ill will. Second, french-braided Depp is just “too Hollywood” for the film, which presents itself as a subtitled French film, from its title and inclusion of French cast members (including Binoche and young Thivisol, so striking in Ponette), and something of a quaint period piece. Still, perhaps the most predictable point is that Roux is positioned as a kindred spirit to Vianne, a soul mate who understands her perpetual desire to move from town to town. You know a romance between Vianne and Roux is inevitable, and perhaps even necessary to sell tickets, but irrelevant to the rest of the plot.
Fortunately, this disappointing storyline does not detract from the film’s magical qualities. Chocolat is the perfect blend of dark, semi-sweet, and milk chocolates, a feast for the senses. With the exception of the Roux’s brief sojourn in the sleepy hamlet, the story is enchanting, the characters compelling. Even when resolutions come into view, more often than not, the appearance of a resolution is actually the catalyst for further change and growth—and in the instance of the fertility festival, sexual advancement is inevitable for some wary townsfolk. It’s nice to see a fable acted out by real people rather than animated animals, and magic that comes not from an evil sorceress hell-bent on revenge but from the skilled hands (and an ancient Mayan secret of chili powder) of a charming female lead. And, in keeping with what medical professionals have now discovered: Chocolat is good for your heart, so indulge.