“Chocolat” is more than a delicious confection; it’s a richly textured comic fable that blends Old World wisdom with a winking, timely commentary on the assumed moral superiority of the political right. The most satisfying epicurean feast since “Big Night,” “Chocolat” is generously laced with Lasse Hallstrom’s trademark observations on the limitless capacity of the human spirit. Pic reps the director’s successful reteaming, after “The Cider House Rules,” with Miramax, which is sure to maximize the benefits of this crowd-pleasing holiday treat despite the lack of blockbuster elements. With a rollout platform release building on favorable reviews and strong word of mouth, “Chocolat” has the recipe for mid-range success.
Set in France in the late 1950s, story opens in the fictional hamlet of Lansquenet, a medieval village unchanged for centuries. Hallstrom makes that point with deft economy in pic’s opening moments: A sweeping aerial shot of the isolated town yields to images of dowdy villagers on their way to Mass. As resistant to change as their village once was to medieval warriors, these are folk whose abiding principle is tranquilite — a tranquillity that depends on maintaining Christian traditions of abstinence, penitence and moral righteousness.
And when the blustery north wind blows into town, bringing with it the red-hooded, unwed mother Vianne Rocher (the quietly radiant Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), nothing could be a greater threat to the status quo.
Vianne leases the patisserie during Lent, a plan that the town’s mayor and guardian of morality, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), insists is nothing short of sacrilege. Not to worry, the rosy-cheeked Vianne informs him cheerily, it’s not going to be a pastry shop.
It will, in fact, be something much worse: a chocolate shop, the likes of which Lansquenet has never seen. Splashed with color and Mayan ceramics, the shop has the decor, sniffs elderly dowager Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), of an “early Mexican brothel.” And while she’s hardly a madam, Vianne soon exerts a mysterious influence over the townspeople.
Though wary of the outsider’s presence, they are lured, one by one, by her shop’s delectable scents and visual pleasures, and are delightedly surprised by Vianne’s instinct for guessing her customers’ favorite chocolates.
Her blend of culinary magic and intuition soon restores the zing in one couple’s sex life and helps an elderly gentleman (John Wood) find the courage to court a widow (Leslie Caron) he has admired from afar. Vianne’s confections even enable the once-grumpy Armande to mend a rift with the grandson (Aurelien Parent Koenig) her estranged daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) has forbidden her to see. Along with Armande, Vianne finds a friend in the initially skittish Josephine (Lena Olin), the long-suffering wife of the town’s boorish cafe proprietor (Peter Stormare).
But even as some of the townsfolk begin to trust Vianne, others think she is doing the devil’s work, prompting the indignant Comte de Reynaud to declare a moral war on Vianne and her chocolate shop.
This tension accounts for a number of comic moments involving parishioners’ guilty confessions about their lust for chocolate to the young priest (Hugh O’Conor), who is himself — gasp — an Elvis Presley fan.
Fed up with the Comte’s self-righteousness, Vianne decides to inflame existing tensions by taking up with the roguish Roux (Johnny Depp), an Irish gypsy who arrives in town with a ragtag guitar-strumming crew. Roux and his band of reprobates are, to the Comte, a moral abomination about whom “something must be done.”
Final act involves a narrowly averted disaster that nearly runs Vianne out of town. Being a Hallstrom film, however, “Chocolat” tempers the bitter with the sweet. The film, finally, is about having the power to change, to accept others regardless of their differences. Brimming with dualities, it pairs themes of feast with fasting and Christian tradition against pagan rituals. Though Vianne is clearly the heroine, the Comte, who believes he is doing good, is not altogether villainous.
Hallstrom couldn’t have asked for a better cast to embody those themes; likewise, his production team has done an exquisite job of giving life to Robert Nelson Jacobs’ taut script.
David Gropman’s well-conceived production design illustrates the evolution of Lansquenet from a moribund, monochrome village to a newly upbeat town infused with color and light, beautifully captured in Roger Pratt’s lens. Costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus provide the sartorial complement to those themes, beginning with Vianne’s red cape and pink pumps and spreading to the bright hues incorporated in the wardrobes of Josephine, Armande and others.
Rachel Portman’s score offers suitably buoyant notes that underscore character and help develop themes.