Chocolat (UK, 2000) *** 1/2
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs from the novel by Joan Harris. Photography, Roger Platt. Editing, Andrew Monsheim. Production design, David Gropman. Music, Rachel Portman. Cast: Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss, Leslie Caron, Hugh O'Connor, Victoire Thivisol. Aurelien Parent Koenig. Producer David Brown. A Miramax co-production and release. 121 minutes. PG-13.
In French, "chocolat" means both chocolate and hot chocolate. In 1988 there was another film by that title, a splendid socio-political work which had nothing to do with sweets but was director Claire Denis's semi-autobiographical reminiscence of her youth in then colonial French Cameroun's (sic) in North-West Africa.
By coincidence, the year 2000 also saw "Thanks for the Chocolate," the 52d feature by the redoubtable Claude Chabrol. It won the major Delluc Prize in France, has not yet arrived in the USA, and has little to do with food --even though Chabrol is the most gastronomy-oriented of major directors.
Our "Chocolat" is only indirectly political, as it refers to forces of enlightenment versus obscurantist and conservatist attitudes. But it does fit nicely within the sub-genre of "food movies and their magic," one that includes the Mexican "Like Water for Chocolate," the American "Big Night," and the great Danish :Babette's Feast." (The fine Canadian lesbian film "Better than Chocolate" gets its title indirectly as its protagonist happens to be a chocomaniac).
Director Lasse Hallstrom made several movies in his native Sweden. "My Life as a Dog" rightly became an international hit and led to America. There he made the quirky and under-seen "Once Around," the lauded "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," the fair "Something to Talk About," and the excellent "The Cider House Rules." Hallstrom's movies have originality and deal with offbeat characters. With "Chocolat" he goes several steps further by giving us a real fairy tale. It is Lent time in 1959. In a French village, single mother Vianne (Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Thivisol of "Ponette" fame) appear out of nowhere. (Juliette Binoche's most recent films include the "Three Colors" series, "The English Patient" and "Alice and Martin.") Vianne has come to purchase a derelict "chocolaterie." Where her money comes from, how she transforms the locale into a decorated, well-equipped shop with chocolates, truffles and other goodies to die for, plus other aspects of the film, remain a mystery. But after all the movie is an A to Z pantasy. Before you know it, the place looks great -- and he confections can make audiences drool. This shop is a genuine "salivatorium."
Soon Vianne has a small group of faithful followers, including the curmudgeonly old Mrs. Amande Voizin (Dench) who early on had declared the shop's look to be "early Mexican bordello." But she gets tamed and forms a trio with Vianne and Josephine (Lena Olin who is Mr. Hallstrom's wife and had co-starred with Binoche in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being.") Josephine, first shown as a kleptomaniac then as a battered wife, leavesher abusing bar-owner husband, finds refuge in the chocolaterie, gets prettier, becomes Vianne's co-worker and finally--just like Madame Voizin-- can smile, laugh and be normal.
The chocolates, the hot chocolate and other sweets have magic ingredients, including hot chili peppers. Also odd names such as "Nipples of Venus." Tasting almost anything does miracles, changes lives, lifestyles and attitudes.
But -- there's always a "but" in fairy tales--, there is Opposition with a capital O. The village's uncontested boss and Mayor (the England-born Alfred Molina, he of a thousand faces) is the Comte de Reynaud. His word is law, his odd religiosity a kind of substitute for a traumatized psyche. He covers up the fact that his wife has left him for good (why is not explained but could be guessed) by pretending that she keeps extending her trip abroad.
The other major character is the Mayor's secretary, husbandless Madame Clairmont (Moss), a high-bourgeoisie lady with a talented young son, Luc. She is also the estranged daughter of old Mrs. Voizin and forbids Luc to talk to his grandmother.. And she's against the chocolate shop and its people. (There are reasons given, sort of reasons, that is. Don't expect Cartesian logic.)
The Count is a fine specimen of unreasonable intolerance. When defied by Vianne, he reminds her that his ancestors had put to the sword hordes of Protestants (or Albigensian heretics?) He communicates his dislike of Vianne to the parishioners, who follow meekly, and tries to do the same to the very young new priest who is smart, tolerant and not taken in by the "capital offense" of Vianne who dares open her place while Lent is going on.
How the plot develops must remain unsaid, except for the later addition of Johnny Depp. He shows up on water, with other river rats who, much like gypsies, are disdained, mistrusted and indeed opposed by the villagers. This adds another element of discrimination against people who are "different" by knee-jerkily religious, extreme-right, sclerotic, unthinking peasants. The film's main body goes from Lent in 1959 to Lent the following year.
The message is tranparently about tolerance vs. mindless suspiciousness, but it is also a paean to gustatory delights. Food is a religion in France, but it can co-exist with "regular" faith, just as tradition can peacefully co-exist with novelty. The story reminds me of the near-classic in the early days of the Cold War's Red Scare (and future McCarthyism) "The Boy With Green Hair" (1948). A war orphan wakes up with green hair one day, and that's enough to make him "different" and discriminated against.
"Chocolat" is most entertaining, light even when things get serious, often very funny (note the parts with the young priest.)I. It was made mostly in England, with some footage in France. I suspect that the real French village used was for high shots of rooftops, later patched in with studio scenes. All the performers speak in English with a variety of would-be French accents. A delicious film, easy on the eyes and, I hope, on the digestion of any chocolate-eating actors.