Sweet Like Chocolat
I'll come 'round sometime and get that squeak out of your door - Roux
"Chocolat" is like the confectionary at the centre of the story, it's sweet and creamy delighting with quirky flavours that tickle your taste buds but at the same time it has a bitterness, a darker almost harsh side as it uses chocolate as a metaphor for the battle between religion and paganism, fun and virtue. Now that may sound like "Chocolat" is a heavy movie which preaches about the joys of life against strict religious virtue, but that's far from the truth as "Chocolat" is a delightful tale, a whimsical movie with a delicious visual palette, beautiful writing, lovely performances and a warmth which resonates long after the movie has finished.
In a small picturesque and religious French town, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche - Dan in Real Life) and her young daughter arrive and instantly cause a stir when they take over the empty patisserie and turn it into a chocolate shop just as Lent starts. This and Vianne's personality don't go down very well with the narrow minded mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina - Boogie Nights) and does what ever he can to close her shop down. But between Vianne's warm personality and her delightful Chocolates she manages to win over some of the town's folk. When a bunch of river drifters show up it causes even more stress for the town's mayor although for Vianne it brings pleasure as she meets their charming leader Roux (Johnny Depp - Sleepy Hollow).
The storyline to "Chocolat" which hides behind layers of creamy sweetness is basically a battle between enjoying life and having fun against religious virtue and depriving oneself. It's surprisingly easy going with very few moments of darkness and those which do creep in such as an abusive husband, and the po faced nature of some of the town's population is treated with a gentle touch. In fact maybe a little to gently as it ends up softening these few dramatic moments, causing "Chocolat" to flow on a warm current of charm never rising to a tide of emotion and tension.
And to highlight this softness is a beautiful almost chocolate box palette which infuses many a scene with a warm resonating glow. It makes "Chocolat" on one hand lovely to watch but on the other it also highlights the almost one level ness of it all. The darkness of the few dramatic scenes never gets the harsh palette that it needs and ends up feeling smothered by the warm glow which director Lasse Hallström is intent on displaying.
But whilst the storyline and palette make "Chocolat" all a little one sided the quirkiness of various characters and situations as well as the subtle comedy raises the movie to make it an undeniable pleasure. Watching Vianne's chocolate bring out the inner yearnings of those who taste it is wonderful, not necessarily original but beautifully incorporated to make you smile. And the same can be said of Vianne's free flowing relationship with Roux, it makes you smile and occasionally laugh at the almost quirkiness of their characters. Although it's also fair to say that whilst pleasurable there are moments of comedy which are so heavy handed it feels like you are being force fed.
Acting wise well Juliette Binoche seems to float through the movie as Vianne, calm and rarely antagonized by those who dislike her presence and as such is in tune with the charming tale which Lasse Hallström is trying to deliver. It is a pleasant performance, lovely in many ways but like the storyline is crying out for a bit more emotion. And that is a criticism of all the performances from the likes of Lena Olin, Judi Dench, Carrie-Anne Moss and even Johnny Depp as whilst they are all lovely and add to the movie's charm they all feel subdued rarely discovering any passion or anger in the character. The only exception is Alfred Molina as Comte de Reynaud whose comical management of the town allows for a character of different levels, one who is desperate to keep order through religious virtues.
What this all boils down to is that "Chocolat" is a lovely movie, it is charming and warm, fun and light hearted and all shot in a wonderful pallet which adds to the warmth. But in doing so it has almost one level and moments of drama seem smothered by the attempts to keep everything warm and whimsical and as such the characters also feel smothered, swimming in too much sweetness. It means that "Chocolat" is a movie which is either going to be high up your list of favourite movies or much lower down for its excessive warmth.
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