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"Once upon a time..." the voiceover begins and Chocolat
is instantly in the territory of fairy tales and fables--in this case very much a fable,
an imaginative yarn with a moral lesson or two to deliver. The movie is graced with charm
to spare and fleshes out its homilies with memorably engaging characters and a gentle,
droll sense of humor.Victoire Thivisol). They rent a vacant patisserie
from crusty, cranky old Amande Voizin (Judi Dench) and open a chocolaterie. Chocoholics
beware! You could gain ten pounds just watching the goings-on in this kitchen:
chocolate swirled, chocolate shaped, chocolate dipped, milk chocolate, bittersweet
chocolate, filled chocolate, steaming cups of hot chocolate, chocolate cake. What is
particularly special about all this chocolate, though, is that Vianne's special formula
(its history supplied in a flashback) gives it aphrodisiacal qualities.
Placed in a small town in France, spoken in English, and populated with
characters whose accents are from all over the map, Chocolat transcends place.
Even if in a fantasyland, there is a universal ring of truth to the small, conservative
French town, set in its ways, where lace curtains are meant for peering through to see
what the neighbors are up to and social pressure is wielded like a cudgel to maintain the
status quo. With small adjustments, it might as easily be a town in Vermont or Chile or
China for that matter.
Into this colorless and stolid village, buffeted by an ominous north
wind and amidst whirling snow, come two figures in bright red cloaks: Vianne (Juliette
Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk (
Looming before the newcomers is Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the
overbearing, self-righteous, rigidly judgmental mayor of the town. He not only finds a
chocolaterie per se to be suspect (brazen! shameless!), but one that would dare to open
during Lent to be damned. Reynaud, a bully who has the local priest under his thumb,
proceeds to do all he can to insure the failure of the new venture.
Vianne goes about her business. She makes
a friend of Amande whose independent ways have estranged her from her daughter, Caroline,
who works for the Compte. Vianne shelters Josephine (Lena Olin), victim of an abusive
husband. The forces of good sense and kindness are arrayed against the forces of
unreasoning, controlling rigidity. The battle lines are drawn between individuality and
loving and creativity on the one hand, and conformity, inhibition, and repression on the
other. Things are further complicated when a band of "river rats" headed by
guitar-playing Roux (Johnny Depp) anchors in town.
Binoche is quite perfectly cast as Vianne, radiating warmth and
kindness and spunk, but also with her own demons to be confronted. Dench once again
creates a memorably eccentric character in her featured role. Olin transforms Josephine
from mousy, neurotic victim to triumphant fulfillment and Molina is a villain suitable for
booing. All the supporting players hit just the right note, even to a cameo by veteran
Leslie Caron--fifty years after she won audience hearts dancing with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris.
Though opening for Christmas, Chocolat is a tale of
redemption that could become a perennial Easter treat with more heft to it than, say, Easter Parade. But its genuinely christian message
of measuring goodness by what we embrace and create and include, rather than defining it
by what we condemn and reject, is welcome in all seasons.
- Arthur Lazere