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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Chocolat

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Rated: R
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: January 2001
Genres: Drama, Romance

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Although chocolate is a high-calorie food, health honchos have discovered that it has benefits aside from its heavenly taste. Chocolate releases hormones that affect our mood and our feelings of love--but then we guys who have been giving boxes of the stuff to our women friends along with the flowers always knew that. Chocolate in moderate quantities has been found not to elevate cholesterol and some researchers even believe that it has anti-carcinogenic properties. No wonder, then, that this enchanted confection can change the attitudes of an entire town, as we see in a wonderfully atmospheric, exquisitely paced fable called "Chocolat." Though the principal performer is French and all action takes place in an isolated French village, the dialogue is English--which should be a selling point for the ninety-nine percent of American moviegoers who seem to eschew any film that requires the reading of subtitles.

As Roger Pratt's camera brings us to another world, the fictional village of Lansquenet that would be the delight of tourists but would bore the breeches off any urban traveler in two days, we wonder whether we are in the year 1363 rather than the actual time of the setting eighteen years after World War II. The cobblestone streets that embrace the shadow of the town's single church form the pavement for a group of citizens who appear alike in their beliefs but whose experiences run the gamut from a crotchety grandmother to an abused wife to an uptight mayor and a sex-starved matron.

As the entire hamlet pays homage to God on one blustery Sunday, in walks unwed mother Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) together with her young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). She is introduced to us as a wanderer whose agenda may be more than the mere opening of a chocolate shop. Renting a storefront from the grouchy old Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), she tries to coax the townspeople into patronage by offering free samples of her wares, but those not biting include the reactionary mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina)--whose ancestor once chased the "radical" Huguenots out of the town and whose statue frowns down on the citizenry--and Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin), who is more interested in shoplifting a small box of goodies than in honest patronage.

Though the mayor, allied with the reluctant priest Pere Henri (Hugh O'Conor), urge a boycott of the store since it has opened during the Lenten season, most of the folks cannot resist taking in the aromas of the divine food. Vianne even wins over the kleptomaniac Josephine, who has been abused by her boorish husband Serge (Peter Stormare), and becomes an assistant in the shop regularly turning out Venus Nipples and an array of confections that would make New York's Godiva fans drool. When Vianne--whose refuses to go to church like the rest of the town--begins hanging out with the knavish Irish gypsy Roux (Johnny Depp), the lines are firmly drawn. Townspeople like up behind their mayor in favor of ridding the hamlet of both Vianne and the gypsy band, while others like Josephine and the newly cheerful grandmother, ally themselves with the newcomer.

Lasse Hallstrom's film, based on an adaptation of Joanne Harris's novel by Robert Nelson Jacobs, shares a motif with Gary Ross's "Pleasantville" (a brother and sister infiltrate a narrow-minded environs with their cosmopolitan sensibilities), with "Gabriel Axel's "Babette's Feast" (about people using religion as a substitute for life who are at least temporarily converted to worldliness via a gourmet dinner), and with Stanley Tucci's "Big Night" (immigrants trying to survive as restaurateurs against the competition of an established food emporium). "Chocolat," which is as light and fluffy as a bonbon, does not quite support the weight of its message-- that people everywhere must learn to tolerate those who are different from them--though the picture does most adequately convey the notion that we should all lighten up. One movie buff in effect mentions on an Internet site that the religious townspeople are made to look like ignorant hillbillies while the agnostic, nature-worshipping Vianne is the bearer of truth: that the film condescends, taking sides with the sophisticated wanderer who seems to need no money (she hands out more samples than she sells). This criticism has merit, just as does the similar point made about "Pleasantville." On the whole, "Chocolat" must be accepted as a fairy tale, beckoning the audience to suspend disbelief and to go with the central idea that conventional views ought to be challenged, that change is the nature of things, that life is not a dress rehearsal. "Chocolat" is a lovely, atmosphere-rich tale, a heartfelt, Capra-esque fable well suited to the coming holiday season.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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