A Film by Lasse Halstrom
As a film that is appropriate for the Valentine's Day season, Chocolat is right on the mark. This sweet confection from Lasse Halstrom, like his award-winning My Life As A Dog, has a combination of humor, romance and pathos, blended into a mixture of flavors that is both interesting and satisfying. Although he may occasionally go a bit to far to underline a joke or milk the sentiment from a poignant moment, the good nature and gently optimistic tone of the film overcomes these minor transgressions.
Chocolat celebrates the making of relationships, the interactions between people that give life its excitement and fun. It uses chocolate - the main character is a chocolatier - as a symbol for the mysterious, the exotic, the unknown, to which we must open ourselves - which we must even internalize - in order to know the full spectrum of our life's experiences.
The film centers around Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), two wanderers (refugees? pilgrims?) who arrive in a small French country town just at the beginning of Lent. They come from a nomadic background and suspect ancestry - Vianne is the daughter of a French father and a Guatemalan Indian mother; Anouk's father is unknown. Against the background of the tradition-bound village, they represent a taste of the exotic - in addition to her talent for creating unusual chocolates, Vianne spices her hot chocolate with ground chili pepper.
The juxtaposition of the free-spirited Vianne, whose life centers around the sensual gratification offered by her sweets, and the strait-laced villagers, particularly the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) who is the village Mayor, and Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Ann Moss), the estranged daughter of Vianne's landlady, Armande Voizin (Judy Dench) creates the pivotal conflict of the story.
The process by which these characters - Vianne included - are changed by their interaction and given new visions of their lives that allow them to go beyond the bounds they had previously accepted is subject of the film's narrative. Although much of it is predictable - the crusty, dipsomaniac Armande turns out to have a heart of gold, and her relationship with her daughter is healed by her budding relationship with her grandson, to choose just one example - the performances give the characters a life that carries them beyond stereotypes.
Halstrom is a director who enjoys working with actors, and he gives them free rein while managing to restrain what could become indulgence. His evocation of life in a small village is, as it was in My Life... both sweetly nostalgic and candidly critical. He understands the strengths and weaknesses people show in such circumscribed situations, and exploits them to explore human character in general.
Binoche uses her inherent sensuality sparingly, as a quiet sub-text reinforcing the revolutionary message she brings - and learns: that what seems like self-indulgence, if it is genuine, conscious, measured and engaged in with a sense of responsibility, is an important part of the healthy balance of being human, and can be truly liberating.
Judy Dench has a field day as the curmudgeonly Armande. With her usual exquisite balance of emotional accessibility and restraint, she negotiates several moments that, as written, could have been shamelessly tear-jerking, and manages to invest them with real human uncertainty.
Molina's Comte is a self-important popinjay, whose battered self-esteem and lost love are the sources of his unhappiness. Molina plays him with a relish that is comic, but also at points genuinely and dangerously unlikable. When he makes his transition, Molina carries enough of his former characterization forward to enable us to laugh with the character, at his own (our own?) foibles, rather than just at him.
Depp makes minimalist use of his striking good looks to create an iconic image of the "rambling Gypsy," the ultimate free spirit who, while a liberating influence on the repressed, may also carry the seeds of self-destruction. Through allowing himself - under Vianne's influence - to want something, he begins to be able to balance individual freedom with commitment to others.
Lena Olin gives a riveting performance as Josephine, the abused wife of the tavernkeeper, Serge (Peter Stormare, in a fine job in a difficult role) who finds courage and independence in the chocolate shop. The transition she depicts - from abject fear and self-effacement to inchoate self-assertion and confidence - is drawn with great and effective delicacy.
For the most part the technical aspects of the film are wonderful. There are a few color-matching problems with the film stock - probably a function of this being a relatively low-budget project. The sets, and particularly the village location, with it's severely enclosed square, bordered by City Hall and the church on one side, and Vianne's Chocolaterie Maya on the other, effectively evokes both the sense of concrete reality and the sense of magical, allegorical possibility that Halstrom seems to want to convey.
Interestingly, there isn't a single motorized vehicle to be seen in the entire film, nor a television or radio. Except for electric lights and a telephone, there are no hints as to the time frame in which the action occurs. The complications of technology, which might distract from the simplicity of the story, are simply ignored. Halstrom and his designers choose to create an imaginary world, outside of time and mundane reality, to tell their fantastic story.
There are both philosophical and structural problems with Halstrom's approach here, and that of his screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, who adapted the novel by Joanne Harris. Halstrom stubs his toes on a number of occasions. Thivisol is not up to being an effective, unaffected foil for the characters around her - especially Binoche - and several of her scenes feel awkward and forced. There are a few points where individual actors are not able to overcome the familiarity of certain themes in the script, or some piece of banal dialogue and they aspire to transcend clichˇ without entirely being able to do so.
There are characters whose stories are left hanging - most notably the brutal villain of the piece, Serge, who, after engaging in some really bad behavior, is merely banished from the village. In the real world, such a resolution can't be acceptable, as questions arise about the moral responsibility of sending such a character out to repeat his mistakes in another setting.
Likewise, the romantic sub-plot involving Vianne and the Irish traveler played by Depp can not survive much logical analysis. But who wants to logically analyze a Valentine?
The point of this film is the healing power of relationships, of love, and if it is presented emotionally, magically, symbolically rather than in the form of a rational narrative, well, that is a choice Halstrom has made before and will probably make again. If his object is, as I suspect, to recreate a sense of the bittersweet rewards of complex emotional entanglements with other human beings, he has succeeded admirably, and his choice proves to be apt and effective.
That's my take on it. What's yours?