When you watch upwards of 200 movies a year because your job demands it, it’s not often that you get to watch movies just because you want to. That’s one of the beauties of local film societies. Not only are they good for the community, offering viewers the chance to expand on their cinematic literacy or revisit an old favorite, but they afford me the excuse to re-watch things I’d have no chance to otherwise.
Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat is a great case in point. It’s been on my shelves, but I’ve had no reason — or time — to see it again since I reviewed it for this paper over five years ago. I’m happy to say that the film is every bit the magical delight I remembered.
Hallstrom walks a fine line with material that could easily have slipped into the realm of the too precious, and never falters as it tells a predictable story of a woman (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter (Victoire Thivisol) who come to a small French town in 1959 and magically transform it, as much by way of their nonconformity and practical psychology as through any properties of the chocolate they sell. The story works in large part because the two are themselves transformed. Beautiful to look at, the film is charming in every sense, directed with a sure hand, and acted by an unbeatable cast.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
Charm is a delicate and usually very elusive thing — never more so than in the movies. Take it even slightly too far, and instead of the souffle attempted, the results are more like five pounds of sodden, indigestible Christmas fruitcake. However, director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs have completely succeeded with Chocolat, an almost impossibly charming little fantasy. The film what happens to the inhabitants of a small French village when a mysterious — and morally “incorrect” — woman, Vianne Rocher (The English Patient’s Juliette Binoche), and her brazenly illegitimate daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), fly in the face of convention (and business sense) by opening a chocolate shop there during Lent. Basically, it’s a very old premise — the colorful outsider who brings life to a drab town — but in Chocolat, the theme is given new life, easily as bright as the red hooded cloaks in which our heroines arrive on the scene. Here is a film that knows both when to play to our expectations and when to delightfully surprise us. We know, for example, that Vianne’s effect on the village will ultimately be a miraculous transformation. If the film did not offer us that, we would be disappointed. We can fairly easily chart the various changes that will occur among the inhabitants along the way. Again, the film does not disappoint. In that respect, Chocolat gives us what we expect and want, and makes it all seem real and moving and fresh by the sheer creativity of the direction (there is not an ill-timed shot or a misjudged angle in the film) and the personalities of its characters. Then the film turns around and adds another layer to the standard myth by having the village and the people Vianne changed make an equal change in her. It all sounds far more simple than it is, and much of what is so special about Chocolat does not lend itself to analysis. In fact, deeply analyzing something this charmingly fragile might kill it. Of course, a film of this type is utterly reliant on the skills of the actors, and Hallstrom has assembled what can only be called a dream cast. In addition to Binoche and Thivisol (who are both just right), the film offers positively luminous turns — often against type — from Lena Olin (The Ninth Gate), Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love), Carrie-Anne Moss (Red Planet), Alfred Molina (Magnolia), the legendary Leslie Caron, and last but far from least, Johnny Depp. Depp, who appeared earlier in Hallstrom’s quirky What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? perhaps came onboard as a favor to the director. More likely, this glorified supporting role was simply another of his unorthodox and constantly surprising career choices. Once again, Depp proves that he can do just about anything — even accept a small role; sport a believable Irish accent (though what a character named Roux is doing with an Irish accent is another matter, but the name is probably more symbolic than anything); and leave an indelible mark on a film that isn’t really his. At bottom, Chocolat is a beguiling little fable — and a perfect film for anyone who ever needed an imaginary kangaroo playmate to help them get by. See this wonderful movie and you’ll understand what I mean.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke