Chocolate is as good as life gets. I even have dreams about it. But sometimes they’re nightmares. The worst one involves a hold-up man pointing a gun at me and demanding "Your chocolate or your life!" When I don’t respond, he asks, "Well?" And I reply (like Jack Benny), "I’m thinking it over." No doubt about it, the delicious dark stuff is dangerous for chocoholics like me. Watching Chocolat, a charming romantic fantasy about how a woman and her chocolate confections change an entire French village, just added to my addiction problem. But it was well worth it!
"This is your favorite," Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) tells each of her customers as she gives them samples of her yummy treats. Intuitive and free-spirited, she dares to open a chocolaterie at the beginning of Lent in a town grown cold from the tradition of repression. Accompanied by her pre-teen daughter (Victoria Thivisol), Vianne has a history of traveling throughout the French countryside, bringing the magic of chocolate and the wisdom of tolerance wherever she goes.
But the town she chooses in 1959 proves quite a challenge. A tyrannical mayor, played with uptight intensity by Alfred Molina (from t.v.’s Ladies Man), tries to turn all the residents against her. He prides himself on having an ancestor who chased the Huguenots out of the village. "You and your truffles present a far lesser challenge," the pompous official tells Vianne. "If you expect me to just shrivel up and blow away, you will be very disappointed," Vianne replies indignantly.
Instead of leaving, she irritates the mayor even more by taking up with Roux (Johnny Depp), a handsome Irish river drifter. In addition, she harbors a victim of spousal abuse (Lena Olin) and tries to unite a cranky landlady (Judi Dench) with her estranged daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) and grandson (Aurelien Parent-Koenig).
Portrayed by the luminescent Binoche, Vianne emerges as a sexy earth mother who wants everyone to be happy. While not as challenging as her Oscar-winning nurse in The English Patient, this lighter role suits the lovely actress and has earned her another Academy Award nomination. With her cheerful smile and colorful wardrobe (she wears red and pink as a contrast to the grayness of her surroundings), Binoche’s Vianne contributes warmth and color to the film.
All other cast members deliver admirable performances as well. Depp, who modeled his intriguing character after ex-Pogues singer Shane MacGowan, is not in the movie as much as I expected. That disappointed me, especially since he looks and sounds so terrific. His musical brogue delighted me, and I even liked his pony tail hairdo. Maybe Irish river drifters were never a real problem in France, but who cares? A little dramatic license can do no harm in a fairy tale like this. And Depp’s exciting chemistry with Binoche deserves mentioning. They sizzle together on screen. At the film’s London premiere, Binoche described Depp as "My perfect chocolate --- he’s dark, sumptuous, and tasty."
Dench, an Oscar-winner for Shakespeare in Love, manages to evoke sympathy in spite of her character’s unpleasant personality. Sharing a tender scene with young Parent-Koenig, she looks genuinely amazed at the portrait he has drawn of her. "You’ve made me look younger," she whispers in a voice full of love. It’s easy to see why Dench received another Academy Award nomination for her work here.
Based on a novel by Joanne Harris and directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who helmed such acclaimed films as Cider House Rules and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (which also starred Johnny Depp), Chocolat earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Film of 2000. However, because of its stereotypical depiction of a particular religious group, I omitted it from my own "Best Movies" list. Nevertheless, I found most of Chocolat quite appetizing. Now where’s that Snickers bar?
(Released by Miramax and rated "PG-13" for a scene of sensuality and some violence.)