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Why did I see this film? Mostly for its reputation. The trailer promised me gorgeous visuals and a feel-good atmosphere, so I sprang for it.

Before I start in on the film itself (with many spoilers, so proceed with caution) I am going to bash critique the packaging. Nobody comments on the film industry’s style of selling, but for the most part their trailers make even the best films look hackneyed and self-congratulatory and their photoshoots…well, just take a look. Chocolat for the romance crowd! Coy glances and flirtatious spoon-feeding included! Disgraceful. A complete fabrication, stupidly emphasizing a minor and subtly handled plot thread of the film. Even Wiki falls for it, labeling the film’s genre “romance.” The “romance” takes up maybe fifteen minutes, most of it spent in casual chitchat. False advertising indeed.

The film itself? Based on the Joanne Harris novel of the same name, Chocolat unfortunately lends itself to puns. Trying to form a capsule description of it, phrases such as “stylish candy” or “a sweet self-indulgence” come immediately to mind and are hard to replace with more neutral statements. That should say all you need to know about the movie, which took audiences of 2000 by storm, won much acclaim and got five Academy Award nominations.

The plot is a model of simplicity. 1959, a quiet French village, Lent. Shopkeeper Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) arrive and open a Chocolaterie, tempting the townspeople to quit abstaining from life. What follows is a battle of wills between Vianne and the highly religious mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), as she gives aid to the lives of the locals and he tries to give aid to their souls. Then gypsies come calling, infuriating the Mayor even more.

The premise sounds admittedly a bit hokey and I had my doubts, but the film has a lightness of touch that carries it from one scene to another and really saves the picture. Often, I found myself more grateful for what didn’t happen than what did. There was no teary-eyed reconciliation scene between estranged mother/daughter Armande and Caroline (Judi Dench and Carrie-Anne Moss), nor did Vianne ever unburden her heart of its “secret ache” in any overt way. For the most part, the film avoids the easy outs and Lasse Hallström is clearly a fine director on that basis alone.

Among Chocolat‘s most praiseworthy elements are, of course, the visuals. The style of the film is truly exquisite and merits a nomination it didn’t receive. Beautifully shot from start to finish; the design team deserves accolades. Roger Pratt is a fine cinematographer (he also did the work on ’95’s 12 Monkeys – another stylish affair, though the opposite to this film in every other regard). Stephenie McMillan decorated the sets (clearly a woman of great taste, considering she also worked on all eight Harry Potter films and ’93’s classy adaptation of The Secret Garden). I’d be remiss not to mention Rachel Portman’s musical score, of course, which is memorable but never overbearing and almost a character in its own right. I think that if you like what you see in the trailer, you’re guaranteed to like the film.

Also exceptional is the handling of the aforementioned romance.  Rather than overwhelming the situation, it stays discreet and is all the more charming for that. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of a gypsy (called Roux but certainly no Frenchman) is carefully understated and his scenes with Binoche are distinguished by what isn’t said, building a firm foundation to their later relationship. Their story threads through the film, interlacing with many other subplots as Vianne strives to help the many villagers who become regulars in her shop. It’s truly an ensemble film, cutting from one character to another in quick succession yet never seeming rushed.

Unfortunately, with a cast consisting mostly of prim, buttoned-down villagers, the actors mostly don’t get much chance to pop out (Leslie Caron is a prime example). Though the whole cast is good, only a few really shine, among them Hugh O’Conor as Father Henri, the new preacher and as meek and boyish a figure as can be imagined. Clearly uncertain of himself and overwhelmed by the mayor, he does little but follow the man’s lead despite recognising how over-zealous he’s being. And O’Conor makes this potentially annoying character endearing. Also of note is that he’s never seen partaking of the magically liberating chocolate (alone among the good guys) – though if you’ve got Elvis, who needs candy?

Child actor Victoire Thivisol (known for her award-winning performance in Ponette when she was four) is also very good in her role of the charming, imaginative and (realistically) sometimes annoying Anouk; she steals the scene from Binoche during their fight over leaving town, when she moves from anger and denial to a tearful acceptance, trying to comfort herself with the hope that “next time will be better.” One of the most touching scenes in the film. Thivisol and Binoche have a natural interaction that may also stem from the fact that they’d been George Sand and daughter in ’99’s foreign film Children of the Century.

Judi Dench got the Best Supporting Actress nomination but for me it’s a tough call between her and Lena Olin as to who deserved it more. Dench is as excellent as ever in the role of Armande, introduced as crabby and unlikable but soon thawed (by hot chocolate – nice symbolism) and revealed to be a strong and free-thinking woman who knows exactly how she wants to live out her final days. The thawing only goes so far, though; she might regret her estrangement from her family but on her own she’s never willing to bridge the gap. Though Chocolat seems to be just a flight of fancy there’s a believable emotional center to the work that tempers its unrelenting optimism.

Lena Olin’s portrayal of Josephine is perhaps even finer than Dench’s Armande and her transformation from a beaten, mentally distraught housewife to a confident and independent woman is extraordinary to behold. It’s a delicate process and is nicely mirrored in her choice of clothes: Olin’s early scenes have her clad in bulky gray layers and moving in such a way that I figured she was either mentally ill or homeless (which, symbolically, she rather was). By the end of the film though, she’s decked out in casual floral and pastel dresses, her manner is peaceful and she simply radiates happiness. Astonishing to behold.

Of course, having a serious subplot like domestic abuse in a lighthearted movie is in questionable taste and my teeth were on edge in most of husband Serge (Peter Stormare)’s scenes, fearing they’d be made light of. Several times it skirted this trap but good sense thankfully prevailed.

In short, this is a near-perfect trifle. Unfortunately…well, where would a Hollywood film be without something blowing up? In this case, a vengeful villager sets fire to the gypsy boats and pyrotechnics follow. It’s a short scene, but although the event is important to the plot, the explosion and “where’s-my-child?” dramatic fakeout…is not. Oh well. Another lazy filmmaker’s crutch is the voiceover narration, hard to do well and in this case completely redundant. There’s not a thing the narrator tells us that couldn’t have been conveyed through the camera and actors.

Deleted scenes are always illuminating to see; in this case, I’d say the character of the mayor is well-served by a couple of extra scenes that help to flesh out his character and make clear just how seriously he takes Lent. By being less clear about this, his eventual breakdown strikes as melodramatic; adding back those deleted scenes would have helped ward the feeling off.

Lastly, there’s the Christianity vs. Paganism subtext, handled with the greatest tact – dancing around the issue in a way that could be considered refreshingly casual and apolitical…or perhaps gutless (rather like turning down a duel). There’s some interesting stuff in the battle between Vianne and the mayor – once his disapproval becomes clear she retaliates by such means as deliberately befriending the gypsies and by flaunting chocolate as a sexual provocation; he, meanwhile, slides further and further from Christian patience to eventual lawbreaking. However, the screenplay smoothes over this plot thread, keeps it unaddressed and arrives at its happy ending with ease.

Perhaps it’s this tact that is the film’s greatest problem, if problem it is. After all, Chocolat is charming, delightful and left me smiling. But it takes no risks. Of its kind, it is truly excellent, five out of five stars. But when compared to those movies that do take risks – and succeed with them – is when you realise that this is a good, not a great, film.

Lastly, I would recommend that prior to viewing you fix up a batch of homemade chocolate cookies, muffins, cupcakes or scones – you’ll be all set for a splendidly entertaining couple of hours.

Am I keeping the DVD? Yes, for when I need a pick-me-up I can think of few better cures (short of Jeeves and Wooster, of course).

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