Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Movie Review: Chocolat (2000)

U.S. Release Date: 12/15/00
Running Time: 2:02
Rated: PG-13 (Sensuality, mild profanity, some violence)
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Victoire Thivisol, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Hugh O'Conor, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Judi Dench, Carrie-Anne Moss

Director: Lasse Hallström
Producers: David Brown, Kit Golden, Leslie Holleran
Screenplay: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris
Music: Rachel Portman
Studio: Miramax Films

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Any connoisseur of "food films" would quickly inform a watcher of Chocolat that its confections are merely shadows of its inspirations. Mixing the fairy-tale feel of Like Water for Chocolate and the religious oppression of Babette’s Feast, Chocolat attempts to liberate its company with rich, delicate, and decorative chocolaty treats. Yet, in the process, Hallström’s stab at a food film comes off as largely unoriginal in plot and religiously undermining in scope.

In "a quiet little village in the French countryside," ruled by Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), tranquility and penitence are of chief importance—especially during the Lenten season. However, once Vianne Rouhon (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) arrive, with the North wind at their back, trouble begins to boil.

As soon as Vianne opens a chocolaterie in town, she begins to unshackle the townsfolk and stimulate their palettes with a mix of unrefined cacao and chili pepper. Among the influenced, are Vianne’s landlady, Armande (Judi Dench), a local shoplifter and abused wife, Josephine (Lena Olin), and a boycotted "river rat" named Roux (Johnny Depp). Conversely, when Reynaud speaks to his fellow parishioners – vicariously through the clergy – the bulk of the townspeople heed his warnings, which describe Vianne’s chocolate as being sinful.

Under the direction of Hallström (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), Chocolat takes on a lengthy languid pace. While Chocolat may be of epic size, with its two-hour-plus running time, it overstays its welcome and borders on being overtly subversive. In addition, Chocolat is demeaning towards the honesty, humility, and sacrifice of the Lent-observing Christian. Sadly, instead of capitalizing on its decadence and charm, Hallström allows his paper-thin characters and "chilly disposition" to seep through the screen.

With names like Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Juliette Binoche, and Alfred Molina, Chocolat may sound like an ensemble production. In contrast, Molina dishes out the only acting that is actually worthy of mention. His character’s prayer to the Crucifix and closing indulgence are a breath of fresh air among the other forced and plastic portrayals.

Even though the film appears to possess a pretty outer shell (with flawless lighting) and emit an overall aura that is light and sweet, perceptions can be deceiving. On the inside, Chocolat is a processed and contrived treat. Shortly after you bask in its delights, what has come before loses its initial luster; the characters and their genuineness begin to melt; and a center that is somewhat spoiled is revealed. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006