"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.
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 (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.
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, Chocolatis 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.