Screenplay : Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on the novel by Joanne Harris)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Juliette Binoche (Vianne Rocher), Lena Olin (Josephine Muscat), Johnny Depp (Roux), Judi Dench (Armande Voizin), Alfred Molina (Comte de Reynaud), Peter Stormare (Serge Muscat), Carrie-Anne Moss (Caroline Claimont), Leslie Caron (Madame Audel), John Wood (Guillaume Bierot), Victoire Thivisol (Anouk Rocher), Hugh O'Conor (Pere Henri)
Lasse Hallström's Chocolat is a breezy, well-made, but tiresomely preachy fable about a mysterious woman who, through the delectable morsels in her chocolate shop, frees a small French village from the repressive regime of the local Catholic church.
Chocolat is designed through and through to be a crowed pleaser, and for those who don't want to think too much, it probably will be. The problem with the film is that it is so smug and giddy in its own emancipatory moralizing, that it doesn't see that the freedom it cherishes so mightily is only freedom from, not freedom to. In other words, in its narrow-sighted vision of sensual liberation, it cannot imagine that people would willingly choose to deny themselves certain pleasures as a form of purification (something that is hardly unique to Catholics). Rather, it has to impose a forceful religious regime to ensure that we understand the villagers are coerced into such behavior--all the time. And, when sensuality does take over, it is of such a demure sort that it barely registers beyond its symbolic veneer. For all its anti-religious and anti-establishment posturing, Chocolat is terribly conventional.
Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) stars as Vianne Rocher, who literally blows into a small French village on the north wind one winter day. She immediately has three strikes against her. First, she's a single mother; thus, her child, a bright, creative young girl named Anoul (Victoire Thivisol), is considered illegitimate. Second, she is nonreligious and refuses to attend mass with everyone else (it's never clear whether she's an atheist or just detests organized religion). And, third, she wears red high heels, which is surely a sign of her hedonism and threatening potential to corrupt others.
If that weren't enough, she opens a chocolate shop right as the Lent season is beginning. This infuriates Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the village's pious mayor and unofficial moral guardian. Reynaud, with his prim and proper suits and carefully slicked hair, is a model of restraint and forced decency. He makes it his business to police the moral behavior of everyone in town, even going so far as to edit the sermons of the new priest (Hugh O'Conor), who looks all of 18, while also hiding the fact that his wife has left him by claiming she is on vacation in Vienna. (This last point is of the utmost importance because characters like Reynaud must exhibit some form of hypocrisy, lest they confound their critics with true conviction.)
Vianne's chocolate shop begins to attract the village outsiders, including her landlady, Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), a sad, elderly woman whose daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), will not allow her to see her grandson because she fears Armande will corrupt him (after all, she drinks and swears). Another person drawn to shop is Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin), a disheveled kleptomaniac whose husband, the local barkeep (Peter Stormare), beats her.
The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a group of gypsies who set up camp just outside of the village. Naturally, Reynaud declares moral war against the godless wanderers and convinces everyone in the village to post fliers at their places of business informing the gypsies they are not welcome. Like all the other repressive actions taken by Reynaud and the local church, Vianne rejects this one as well, and in the process becomes involved with the gypsies' Irish leader, Roux (Johnny Depp).
All of this is filmed in beautiful, lush tones by cinematographer Roger Pratt (The End of the Affair), who emphasizes the simple beauty of the ancient French village and the surrounding hillsides. The film is set in 1959, so there is an air of emerging modernism clashing with the ancient ways of life dominated by religious tradition and patriarchal power. Vianne and Roux become bulwarks against such oppression, and the chocolate in Vianne's store, which is laced with a special South American chili pepper that is supposed to draw out repressed desires, becomes an all-purpose symbol for liberating potential.
All of this is good and well, and done with a little more subtlety, it might have worked. Director Lasse Hallström has shown in earlier films, such as his Swedish coming-of-age drama My Life as a Dog (1985) and his second American film What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), which also starred Johnny Depp, that he is capable of using subtlety and treating intricate characters with great sensitivity. However, the longer he works in America, the more heavy-handed his projects seem to get (see also last year's The Cider House Rules).
The screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs (Out to Sea), based on the novel by Joanne Harris, leaves no room for the imagination; everything is spelled out to the letter. Every character represents this or that, thus they never register as humans, despite the admittedly great cast. The characters are nothing more than stand-ins for various life philosophies, and the film stacks the deck awkwardly in favor of those it wants us to side with.
And, just in case the theme of tolerance, inclusion, and the rejection of traditional religious moral imperative didn't stand out enough during the first hour and 45 minutes, the film delivers nothing short of a sermon--not a speech, but a sermon--to sum everything up in a nice, pithy three minutes. I'm not sure if this is more indicative of the filmmakers' inability to know when to stop or their general contempt for the audience's intelligence . Either way, the result is an entertaining and lightweight fable that takes a relevant and meaningful theme and simply drives into the ground.
©2001 James Kendrick