In an age when mainstream films like Family Man are promoting staid conservative family values, Chocolat is as deliciously naughty, sweet and magical as, well, chocolate. Sensuous, whimsical and just a little bit subversive, Chocolat will lift you up and make you see the world from a different angle; it will make you rethink your prejudices and feel a bit less guilty about the pleasures you might occasionally indulge in. It’s a crowd-pleasing pseudo-arthouse film that won’t overly challenge the intellect – but that shouldn’t detract from its other merits. Director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog)has created an escapist fantasy that believes in itself, and pulls it off masterfully.
The tale – for despite its poke at traditionalism, this is a fairy tale in the traditional sense – begins with Vianne (Juliette Binoche) arriving in a small and very Catholic French village in the late 1950s. You need to believe that people speak English with French accents (as they do with German accents in Schindler’s List) but rise above your realist demands and you’ll find it’s worth taking the ride.
Vianne and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) breeze into town with their secret Latin recipe of hot chocolate laced with chili pepper; it’s an elixir that elicits emotions and feelings from people, and helps Vianne make at least a few friends when she opens her chocolate shop during Lent.
Which is important, because she’s soon the town pariah. Her chief critic is the sanctimonious mayor, Comte De Reynaud (played wonderfully by Alfred Molina) who oversees both the political and moral health of the village. He even has the local priest, P?re Henri (Hugh O’Conor) under the thumb and practically writes his sermons, which makes for some amusing scenes.
The radiant Vianne provides the perfect model for him of evil in a human form. She’s a proudly single mother, wears irresistably colorful clothes, and doesn’t attend church or even pretend to believe in God. People and their problems are more important to her, and she hopes to spice up their lives with her assortment of chocolate goodies and some fun. "I have a knack for picking people’s favorites," she likes to tell the townspeople who are brave enough to stop by her wicked haven of pleasure.
Except for the favorite of blow-in gypsy Roux (Johnny Depp), one of the "river rats" who arrive in town on their houseboat and must, by their nature, be spreading crime and immorality among the people. Vianne shows them kindness of course, and encourages some of the townspeople to trust them too.
Chocolat is full of likeable characters who are just waiting to be released from the tedium of morality that they have imposed on themselves, with the Mayor as the frightening gatekeeper. Julie Dench grounds the film with her perfomance as Vianne’s grouchy landlady Armande Voizinwith, who melts under Vianne’s insistent good nature. Josephine (Lena Olin), whom Vianne rescues from a violent husband and befriends, evolves into a complete person once she is shown some tenderness. The only character who seems miscast is Johnny Depp, who’s so bohemian and hip for the times that he’s difficult to take seriously. He also seems too immature to play the love interest of the maternal, voluptuous Juliet Binoche.
Connect with people, Chocolat tells its audience; live a little, and what could go wrong? If we were in a town where real arthouse films competed for attention, Chocolat’s syrupy sweetness might not stand out as favourably; but for Bangkok, Chocolat is something special. Treat yourself.