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Chocolate is the beautiful and captivating comedy from the acclaimed director of the Cider House Rules! Nobody could have imagined the impact that the striking Vianne(Binoche) would make when she arrived in a tranquil, old-fashioned French town. In her very unusual chocolate shop, Vianne begins to create mouth-watering confections that almost magically inspire the strailaced villagers to abandon themselves to temptation and happiness! But it is not until another stranger, the handsome Roux arrives in town that Vianne is finally able to recognize her own desires!
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Journey back to 1959 and eyeball that tiny, quaint French village down there. Observe the air of "tranquilité," which for the purposes of this film is defined as staidness and, perhaps - no, definitely - repression. And also note the residents attending church, and that tamped down sense of vague discontent even as they worship. Then a heavy gust blows, and blows open the church door and also blows into town two red-cloaked figures which will change various lives before it's all over. I quote: "A sly wind blew in from the North."
The newcomers are Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, and the tiny village is soon richer by the count of one humble chocolaterie, or a chocolate shop. As the movie audience promptly learns, the village's strings are pulled by the Comte de Reynaud, a pious gent who happens to be Mayor and whose wife may or may not be away on an extended holiday. As we also eventually learn, the Comte isn't truly a villainous soul, only that he believes he knows what is best for the community, this including observing Lent stringently and keeping at bay all things untoward and controversial. This last part, it would quickly dawn on the Mayor, would have to include tearing down Vianne Rocher, her business and her reputation. The Mayor would prefer his village to remain a sleepy one.
Vianne enjoys walking around in her red shoes and being la vonne vivante and demonstrating that joie de vivre, and that about drains my French lexicon. It's made obvious early on that the movie's central conflict will revolve around Vianne's free-spirited nature and the Comte's attempts to stamp down that liveliness and sense of freedom. She's friendly and that's fine, but, in her exuberance, Vianne also thumbs her nose at proprieties and gently mocks the Mayor ("Can I interest you in some nipples of Venus?" she offers him.). She ignores the village's religious structure (and, by that, I mean she refuses to go to church), opening her shop during Lent (a time of abstinence and sincere penitence) and orchestrating a pagan chocolate spring festival at the same time as Easter Sunday. So, no, the Mayor doesn't enjoy having his moral superiority tweaked. We see the Mayor admonishing Vianne: "You don't misbehave here. It's just not done, did you know that?" Whispers abound about whether she's a radical or even an atheist.
Meanwhile, Vianne does start making a few friends here and there, and her chocolate fineries are things of wonder. Vianne claims to know what sort of chocolate best suits her clientele, and this is the part where that opening sentence comes in. "The Maya believed cacao held the power to unlock hidden yearnings... and reveal destinies." Soon Vianne is doling out delectables and remedies, although, as in the best of stories, these remedies work their mojo in an indirect way. Throughout all this, the mayor is busting her chops. And it all gets a lot worse when the river throws up several boatloads of families and drifters. Except, for the movie audience, this is where things really kick up a notch, because at this stage Vianne goes from serving mostly as a plot vessel to someone infinitely more human and more riveting.
On board one of those boats is Roux, disarmingly, roguishly played by Johnny Depp, and he is, of course, Vianne's love interest. And, to play up the romantic tension, Vianne has a bit of trouble guessing which chocolate is right for Roux. Anyway, if one thought the Comte De Reynaud was unhappy before, imagine the state of apoplexy he achieves when river rats suddenly begin to sully his bailiwick. He can't say it aloud, but he's probably thinking: "Sacré merde!"
As the movie progresses, we learn about Vianne's parents and how her vagabond mother set her about her wandering ways, traveling village to village at the whims of the North wind, dispensing cacao remedies. We learn the cracks in Vianne's irrepressible nature and we learn that her daughter Anouk is unsettled enough with the lack of stability that she's invented an imaginary kangaroo friend as a form of security blanket. So it's not a fairy tale life after all, following the North wind.
CHOCOLAT is a wonderful film, and makes me want to read Joanne Harris's novel, although, from what I understand, the role of the Big Bad was altered from being that of a priest in the book to that of the mayor in the film adaptation. Nevertheless, Alfred Molina is superlative, lending a depth and complexity and a melancholy to his character (see how forlornly he gazes at his wife's picture), elevating the Comte de Reynaud to beyond mere token villain status.
It's the feel of the thing which I appreciate the most, I think. CHOCOLAT feels like a charming fairy tale peopled with real life characters. The tone is right away established with the narrator's voice over (supposedly the voice of a grown up Anouk) and the two wind-blown figures in red. The cinematography is exquisite, the exteriors shot in France (the little village is post card picturesque!), the interiors apparently filmed mostly in England's west country and just outside London. And the musical score perfectly supports whatever mood is invoked onscreen. So, okay, I don't know that the dialogue is all that brilliant, even though I did like it. What I do know is that the words in the script are enlivened by a cast of marvelous actors. The battered housewife, the embittered landlady estranged from her family, the repressed lovely assistant of the Comte, the widow who may or may not be grieving over her four-decades-gone husband... these are characters who develop as they fall under Vianne's cheerful ministrations and are themselves empowered. As portrayed by Lena Olin, a sublime Judi Dench, Carrie-Anne Moss, and a still vibrant Leslie Caron, they each add memorable color to CHOCOLAT. I should mention young and talented Victoire Thivisol, as well. She plays Anouk, and she impresses me enough that I aim to look up PONETTE, in which at only four years old she won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival! How awesome is that?
But it all falls on Juliette Binoche, ultimately, and her delightful performance transports the movie to a wonderful viewing experience. Juliette is older now, and yet she's just as exquisite in her maturity. She seems more solid, somehow, than when she was taking on those sex goddess parts in earlier films. As Vianne, I've never liked her more. And she's still beautiful, her inner light keeps on shining. I think the word I'm looking for is "luminous," although that description's probably been beaten into the ground.
CHOCOLAT is that same old package, really, done plenty of times and touting that same message, but this time it's presented with grace and a certain lightness. You get a smattering of romance. Quite a bit of prejudice. Religion, as a restricting engine, again gets a beating. The consumption of foods is just about equated to foreplay. And Johnny Depp plucks at a steel guitar. It's a fable that is comic and uplifting and also sensuous and passionate and excellently enacted. It's a fable, and yet it's inhabited with a core of emotional reality.
Now, if they were to make a movie about my favorite candy, that sucker'd be called... CARAMEL. Does the North wind like caramel?