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CHOCOLAT(director: Lasse Hallstrom; screenwriters: Robert Nelson Jacobs/based on the novel by Joanne Harris; cinematographer: Roger Pratt; editor: Andrew Mondshein; cast: Juliette Binoche (Vianne), Johnny Depp (Roux), Judi Dench (Armande Voizin), Alfred Molina (Comte De Reynaud), Lena Olin (Josephine Muscat), Carrie-Anne Moss (Caroline Clairmont), Hugh O’Conor (Père Henri), Peter Stormare (Serge Muscat), Leslie Caron (Mme. Audel), John Wood (Guillaume Blerot), Victoire Thivisol (Anouk); Aurelien Parent Koenig (Luc Clairmont), Runtime: 121; Miramax Films; 2000)
“Every character is a cliché, everything about the story is predictably smug.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chocolat by Lasse Hallstrom is a thoroughly manipulative and indigestible art-house, comedy-drama, fluff film. It sets up a war between sensualists and those repressed by their religious beliefs. Every character is a cliché, everything about the story is predictably smug. It is so easy to make fun of the one-dimensional villains and feel morally superior to them. I grew nauseous from how bourgeois this film was in attitude, where even the rebels are merely lovers of sweet things. I found not much about the film that I enjoyed (though the cinematography was beguiling and the cast was adept). It was a labor just to sit through it and not gag while waiting for the inevitable preachy sermon that comes at the end, so even the church is redeemed for its unchristian attitude toward strangers. Lasse Hallstrom has come down a few pegs after his more engaging recent films “My Life as a Dog” and “The Cider House Rules,” as he couldn’t pull this fairy tale-like story off without being tainted by the mediocrity of it all. This film got nominated for an Oscar as best picture, which should show you what kind of films Hollywood falls in love with.

Set in 1959, in a small traditional medieval French village, where the centerpiece of the town is the church. The town’s nobleman mayor is the moralist Comte De Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who makes sure everyone knows their place. Tranquility and resistance to change are the only mood swings of this unchanging town. Into this serene but rigid climate, when the north wind was blowing, come two drifters in red-hooded coats, Vianne (Binoche) and her school-aged, illegitimate daughter Anouk (Thivisol). They rent a shabby apartment across from the church from a cranky old woman, Armande Voizin (Judi Dench).

Hoping to win over the locals Vianne, who is an atheist, opens up a specialty chocolate shop, but unfortunately she opens up during Lent. From the pulpit, the newly arrived Père Henri (Hugh O’ Conor), reluctantly but slavishly follows the dictates of the repressed mayor and warns the parishioners against yielding to temptation. So a war ensues between the pleasure seekers and the followers of the church, with the mayor’s aim being to get her to close her shop before Easter.

The shop is painted over in bright pastel colors and when Armande sees what the decor has become, she cleverly states that it’s like a “Mexican brothel.” But Vianne can bake some extraordinary sweets and soon exerts a sensual influence over some of the townspeople, whom she lures into the shop with free samples and her friendly gestures.

Vianne’s magical chocolates bring sexual pleasure to one couple previously having an empty sexual life and an elderly man (John Wood) uses her chocolates as a present to an elderly widow he always admired (Leslie Caron), but was too timid to let her know that. Miraculously her chocolates get the despondent Armande to meet her artistic-minded young grandson (Aurelien Parent Koenig) for brief periods in the chocolate shop. He must obey his widowed mother’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) wishes not to see her openly because she thinks Armande is a bad influence on him, reading dirty books and being a free thinker. But he can’t resist having his grandmother pose for her portrait in the chocolat shop. Vianne will make friends and teach a very troubled woman how to make chocolates who initially steals from her, Josephine (Lena Olin). She is the long-suffering wife of the town’s abusive cafe owner Serge (Peter Stormare).

The film drags on for an hour setting up how these uninteresting figures battle their natural temptations and all the repression they have been burdened with all their lives before the arrival of the ‘River Rats,’ a guitar-strumming boat crew of gypsies, led by the Irish accented Roux (Pitt). They ‘invigorate’ the film with some more clichés of rebels, as they are also strangers the church will turn its anger towards as moral sinners. The moral war led by the mayor intensifies, and a near fatal tragedy is narrowly averted by luck after the mayor’s strong words to the piggish Serge that something must be done about these strangers brings about the burning down of their boats. These events cause Vianne to give up on the town and want to leave, but something happens that pulls the town magically back to its senses and they all undergo a change of spirit and become more tolerant and better people. This contrived turn-around was just too much for me to digest without getting sick from all the sugar I was taking in.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”