Chocolat (Miramax 2001)


Before finally seeing this film, I had heard and read about all I wanted. Most people recommended it, yet to me the story sounded like just the sappy kind of tale I avoid. It had only one feature -- make that two -- in its favor, as far as I was concerned: a pair of its stars, Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche; and that wasnít enough to convince me to fork out the dough.

Chocolat is a kind of modern fairy tale about temptation, repression, and the liberating powers of the senses. It takes place in a provincial French town in the late 1950ís, but life has remained pretty much the same there for hundreds of years. As the North Wind blows through town, it brings with it a stranger: a woman named Vianne (Juliette Binoche), and her young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). They take over an abandoned pastry shop, and turn it into a chocolaterie-of all times, right in the middle of Lent, when the townsfolk are most denied lifeís pleasures. The resident nobleman, Comte Reynaud (Alfred Molina), instantly takes a self-righteous dislike to Vianne, and begins a grudge war against her and her failure to conform. Reynaud is convinced that Vianneís sumptuous confections will undermine the townís code of morality. Come on, now! Obviously the Comte has way too much time on his hands--which he does, since his wife has understandably left him for a more pleasant life in Venice, and he spends his creative moments writing the priestís Puritan homilies for him. Perhaps the Comte is more afraid of the magical way Vianne can guess each villagerís secret desires and satisfy them with just the right hunk of chocolate, and is able to slowly persuade several of them to abandon themselves to temptation. The film revolves around the core of confrontation between the villagers who want to keep life the same, and those who want to revel in their new freedoms.

Each member of the cast in Chocolat plays their part perfectly. The great favorite, other than Depp and Binoche, of course, is Judi Dench, who plays the Iím-over-this-crap grandma, Armande. Dench was nominated for an Oscar for this role. Her daughter, Caroline, is one of the townís tight-assed crowd who frowns on the chocolaterie, and refuses to let Armande see her only grandson. Of course, Vianne has a way of making everything right. She brings families together, helps folks in trouble, and makes those who venture into her shop for a bite, feel all better. Her secret, she claims, is an ancient Mayan recipe, which combines chili pepper with cocoa beans, and has come down to her from her Mayan grandmother. (Sounds like she borrowed a page from Alice B. Toklas' cook book to me...)

Vianneís bedtime stories to her daughter, Anouk, describe how Vianne and her own mother wandered from place to place with their magic chocolate recipe, never settling down, but drifting with the North Wind. Vianne carries the ashes of her mother around with her in a little Mayan urn. But after meeting another outsider, the riverboat Gypsy, Roux (Depp), Vianne feels a stirring to stay in one place. Even when she does get restless and tries to leave town, Anouk resists and accidentally smashes Grannyís urn. Uh oh. The North Wind is just going to have to go on without her now.

What doesnít taste right about this perfectly-packaged, sugary fable, is the theme that all strict Church-going people are repressed and have lousy sex lives. Okay, maybe some of them seem to have a pole up their butt in bringing sensuality into their public personas, but the film makes too broad a generalization for my taste. And who says religious zealots donít play around? Hell, enough of Ďem have ended up in the headlines to disprove that theory--just ask Jim Baker and Tammy Faye. I live in the middle of the Southern Bible Belt, and though there may be as many Baptist churches as there are gas stations on every corner, at least ten pages in the Charlotte, NC Yellow Pages are dedicated to escort services. Appearances arenít always accurate, you see.

I always choke when writers try to shove a moral down my throat--even if it looks and tastes good, it usually melts away in your hands. Yeah, Chocolat is a feel-good movie that charms. It has had great PR and a great cast. But Juliette Binoche was so much more superior in Damage, Alfred Molina played much better in Prick Up Your Ears, and Johnny Depp was so much better inÖwell, most any other Johnny Depp movie. Iím not knocking Chocolat as a fairy tale; as such, it had everything a fairy tale requires: a beautiful heroine, villains (Molina and Peter Stormareís Serge ), a wandering Prince(Depp), a moral (All strict, religious types need sensual rescue services), and a happily-ever-after ending... Vianne and Anouk stay in the newly-converted-to-pleasure-town with Roux and never feel the urge to wander away again. Even Anoukís needed imaginary friend, a kangaroo, hops away forever.

Chocolat is wrapped as pretty as a bon-bon. Itís sugary. It even tastes good. Just donít choke on the generalities.

[Kimberlee Rettberg]