CHOCOLAT (2000) 

Juliette Binoche
Johnny Depp
Lena Olin
Judi Dench
Alfred Molina
Victoire Thivisol
Peter Stormare
Carrie-Anne Moss
Leslie Caron
John Wood

Lasse Hallstrom



Time: 121 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Romance/Drama

Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Binoche), Supporting Actress (Dench), Original Score, Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

CHOCOLAT is one of those movies that I think I would have enjoyed a lot more had I seen it before all the award hype. Which is not to say that didn't like it, I just don't understand all the hoopla. It's a sweet little film with some decent performances, but nothing that blew my socks off. I think the Academy just had a dearth of good performances by women this year. I think Judi Dench is brilliant, however, this wasn't a part that needed much more than for her to show up and do her job. I think there were other more powerful supporting turns this last year from Connie Nielson in GLADIATOR and Catherine Zeta-Jones in TRAFFIC. However, I don't get to vote and that's the way the ballots fall.

This is a good, solid movie with a interesting catch, I just thought it would grab my heart more than it did. The players are perfectly cast and the location unbelievably quaint, yet it was the same old small town angst over a newcomer with fresh ideas and a free spirit. It has a romantic, fable-like quality that makes it's message more easy to swallow, but it doesn't make it more appetizing. The plot holds very few surprises, taking the expected twists and turns. The film opens with the arrival of Vianne (Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Thivisol) to a small, close-knit French village. Their arrival is duly noted by the town mayor the Count de Reynaud (Molina), who believes he holds the physical and spiritual well-being of the townspeople in his hands. When he discovers that Vianne is opening a chocolate shop during the holy season of Lent, he is morally outraged and begins a smear campaign to turn the town against her. He makes it quite clear to the parishoners to steer clear of her and her evil confections, which are sinful to indulge in. Some of the townspeople discover firsthand how right he is. They have never tasted anything so wickedly pleasurable in their whole lives. Vianne seems to able to guess exactly what type of candy is their favorite and makes sure they keep coming back for more.

"I think we can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do."

Though most of the town heeds the Count's subtle threats, Vianne does make a good friend in Armande Voizin (Dench), her landlady. Armande is something of an outsider herself with the church and her own family. She rarely sees her daughter Caroline (Moss) and is forbidden to spend time with her grandson Luc. She's a bad influence. It seems that Vianne is one as well. She picks up the mayor's gauntlet and refuses to allow him to put her out of business. However, she gets into bigger trouble when she befriends Josephine Muscat (Olin) and convinces her to leave her drunkard, wife-beating husband Serge (Stormare). The Count tries to reform Serge and turn him into a gentleman, but his efforts are wasted. Josephine has regained her self-worth working with Vianne and she's not about to go back to her old life. Besides, it becomes grossly clear that the changes the Count made were only skin deep. Vianne gets a break from the Count's wrath when a group of "river rats" dock at the town. Most of the town boycotts their presence, but not Vianne. She strikes up an easy friendship with Roux (Depp), a musician and jack-of-all-trades, since they are both wanderers of the world. He travels by river, she wherever and whenever the North wind blows.

As a favor to Armande, Vianne throws her a decadent 70th birthday party. Only small group of villagers are invited to attend the lavish affair, including Armande's grandson, who has been secretly meeting her at the chocolate shop in order to spend time together. The party is a huge success, ending with dessert and dancing on Roux's boat down at the river. However, what began as a wonderful evening ends in a near disaster and certain heartbreak. It's becomes clear to Vianne, when the wind starts to blow, that it's time to move again. Maybe the next town will be more excepting of their unique concoctions. Neither Josephine nor Anouk want Vianne to leave, but she's made up her mind. It takes a devastating fight with Anouk for her to realize what this transient life is doing to her daughter...and what it did to her. She is finally convinced to stay and gains acceptance by not only the townspeople, but the Count as well. A man who finally realized life isn't worth living without a little joy and pleasure.

Despite it's obvious messages, CHOCOLAT is a fairly sweet confection that will leave you feeling good as it goes down. It owes it's watchability to the talent of it's stars, especially Binoche, Molina, Dench and Olin, who give subtle and occasionally stirring performances. The Count could have been merely a by-the-numbers, small-minded villain, but Molina, who had the hardest job in my opinion, manages to keep him just this side of ludicrous and annoying. He portrays him as a man clinging to his convictions because they are the only thing he has left. The two children in the piece, Victoire Thivisol and Aurelien Parent-Koenig, give delightfully complex performances as pawns in the lives of their respective families, but with powerful wills of their own. Johnny Depp has a smaller part than one would suspect from the poster, but he's enchanting as the river rat with the Irish brogue and twinkle in his eye. He actually delivers much of the film's comic relief with his sexy style and sly innuendos.

The piece is well-directed with a lovely score and a plot that keeps moving and unfolding to it's logical conclusion. I guess that's probably why I didn't like this film better. I enjoyed the ride, but I felt I had travelled down this road before. Certainly CHOCOLAT has it's own spin, but not enough to make it spectacular or to drive me to a second viewing. It did, however, make me desperate to visit France again. This is small film with a lot of heart, I just wish it had more mystery. If you like the actors and enjoy films about quirky people, then you'll most definitely enjoy this movie.

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