Written by Joanne Harris and Robert Nelson Jacobs
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
In the tradition of films such as Harper Valley PTA, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Mermaids, Chocolat is a film that depicts a slice of life of the women of a narrow-minded small town. In this case, the town is in France at some time period of either the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.
Vianne (portrayed by Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk (portrayed by Victoire Thivisol) arrive in town to open a Chocolaterie just in time for Lent. Vianne’s unconventional ways strike fear in the heart of the Compte de Reynard (portrayed Alfred Molina), who is used to controlling everything and everyone in the town, right down to the new, young priest (portrayed by Hugh O’Conor) whose sermons he edits.
Vianne represents something the Compte cannot control, and he has a hard time dealing with it. Although he is not a bad man, he goes out of his way to create an environment hostile to Vianne and Anouk to drive them from the town.
Meanwhile, Vianne finds camaraderie with her landlady, Armande Voizin (portryed by Judi Dench) as well as Josephine Muscat (portrayed by Lena Olin), a woman whose husband, Serge (portrayed by Peter Stormare), has abused her for years while everyone in the town ignores it. Whether the Compte has known about it and ignored it up until now, or whether he truly was ignorant of the fact is debatable. For once the situation is brought to his attention in a manner which he cannot ignore any longer, he does make an attempt to deal with the husband.
The tale comes off more like an old-fashioned fable. Vianne and Anouk are the new people in town; the outsiders who shake things up. In addition, soon some river gypsies set-up camp just outside of the town. Their leader, Roux (portrayed by Johnny Depp) soon takes a fancy to Vianne.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, despite the fact that there were no real surprises in the plot. What made it so enjoyable is the delightful way in which the plot points are treated by the script and the wonderful performances by the actors. The tale takes on a whimsical and humorous air despite the fact that it tackles such subjects as domestic abuse, prejudice, religious intolerance, and familial estrangement.
Juliette Binoche really holds the film together as Vianne. All of the various plot points revolve around her and she manages to create a character that is very believable in each facet. That’s not always easy to do, as some actors seem to become entirely different people when their role has so many dimensions. Binoche brings just enough of her core character into the scenes where she is a friend, counselor, businesswoman, mother, or lover that it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to believe she is this well-rounded a person yet has drifted from town to town throughout her life.
This film was released in 2000, sometime before Depp’s resurrection of his career in Pirates of the Caribbean. Although when I first saw this film I didn’t recognize the actor, his performance here is terrific and should not go unrecognized. His accent was a bit off and for that reason I initially thought it was Brad Pitt due to his accent in Snatch. On my second viewing of Chocolat I appreciated the character much more. There are some scenes of Roux so relaxed and laid-back, I could see shades of Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp’s scenes with Binoche are sensual, bringing an air of sexuality to Chocolat that ties in nicely with the correlation between sex and chocolate.
Perhaps the most brilliant performance, though, is that of Alfred Molina. As the uptight Compte de Reynard he shines in his controlled and controlling persona. His stiffness and familiarity with everything around him shows how he likes an ordered environment, free from the temptations of sin. This is exactly what Vianne’s shop represents to him – the proverbial den of iniquity from which he must lead himself not into…
The supporting players are all terrific as well and round out the diversity of the town quite nicely and add much more depth to the story. There is enough going on to make a plot which has been done so many times before seem new and different. The cinematography is beautiful as the French countryside never looked so glorious. I loved the variety of angles and shadow play used to reflect the different characters and their moods. Visually, the movie is a masterpiece.
If you’re looking for a sweet, adult-oriented tale you can’t do better than this film.