Saturday 7 May 2022

Movie Review: Chocolat (2000)

A tender drama with sprinkles of humour and romance, Chocolat is a playful story about the winds of change.

The setting is 1959 in rural France. Life in the small riverfront village of Lansquenet centres around the church, and the mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) ensures long-held traditions are respected. Free-spirited expert chocolatier Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter Anouk drift into town. Vianne rents vacant premises in the town square from the crusty Armande (Judi Dench) and dares to open her chocolate shop in the middle of Lent. 

The Comte is not impressed by the unmarried mother causing a stir in his community, but Vianne sets out to win hearts through her chocolate creations, and befriends Armande, who is on bad terms with her daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss). Vianne also helps Josephine (Lena Olin), who is stuck in an abusive marriage. The arrival of a band of river gypsies led by Roux (Johnny Depp) further disrupts the town, and Reynaud increases his efforts to drive those he deems undesirable out of town.

An adaptation of the Joanne Harris book, Chocolat is a whimsical experience. Director Lasse Hallström and writer Robert Nelson Jacobs craft a fairly predictable but still enjoyable light-hearted drama with a fairy-tale ethos. Aided by winning performances and an isolated but still vibrant locale, Vianne's adventures carry transformational themes into intimate encounters.

While never overbearing, serious issues infuse the drama with substance, with a focus on women at life's various stages. The elderly Armande is clinging to vivacious ideals despite a serious health crisis, while Josephine is the community's prospective outcast, a woman veering towards irrationality due to abuse. Both stories use poignancy to affirm a woman's right to break loose of expectations, especially when suffering.

More broadly, Vianne representing secular modernity clashing with religious traditions. She shuns local conventions, and later Roux joins her as a free spirit equally dismissive of the old ways. Although Vianne makes no attempt to bridge the divide, Hallström unquestionably - and rather simplistically - aligns his sympathies with the winds of renewal, and portrays the Compte as an antagonistic relic.

But delving deeper, Vianne's chocolate recipes and backstory are derived from ancient Mayan traditions, and so also carry the weight of history, but from a different culture and another corner of the world. Chocolat becomes an intriguing contrast between two keys to the heart, both mystical, but at least superficially incompatible.

In addition to the central stories featuring Armande and Josephine, Vianne's chocolates help one couple regain a sexual spark, and encourage one man (and his dog) to pursue a romance with a widow (Leslie Caron), both side-stories adding moments of levity. The performances merge with the impish mood, Juliette Binoche setting the tone for the women-dominated cast by knowingly investing in confections as gateways to the soul. Chocolat tilts to the sweet side, but is nevertheless irresistible.

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