An indie film set in France in the late 1950s, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, among many others. Binoche plays Vianne Rocher, a woman who, with her daughter, arrives in a small French village, where everyone knows their place and stays in it like it or not. There, she sets up a chocolate shop. Because she sells such decadent goods, and refuses to attend church, she offends the sensibilities of the town's mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (played by Alfred Molina.) This is exacerbated by the fact that Rocher has a gift for composing chocolate concotions with an almost medicinal effect, unlocking people's desires and threatening to loosen them up. A classic struggle between spontaneity and uptight white men ensues.

The movie is truly beautiful. The story is of course more complicated than I've described, with Rocher falling in love with a river rat (Roux, played by Depp) and mediating a family struggle that spans three generations. The setting is lovely, and the photography takes advantage of the charms of such an old village and the surrounding countryside. And of course there's the constant sensuality of chocolate, with Mayan mysticism thrown into the mix.


Motion picture released in 2000, based upon the novel by Joanne Harris
Director: Lasse Hallström
Screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs
Distributed by Miramax
Running time 121 min

Adding to the previous writeup, one has to mention the fantastic acting performances by Juliet Binoche and Judi Dench (M in the Bond-films, the queen in Shakespeare in love and lots, lots more). The other actors does not impress as much, but that has more to do with the film being told as an old tale, using stereotypes and not giving the actors very much room. Hallström has left no room for subtlety, but that is probably necessary when releasing a movie about bigotry and double standards in the U.S.... 

It is interesting to see Johnny Depp working together with Hallström since their first time What's eating Gilbert Grape. The role as Gilbert Grape was Johnny's first "serious" role, not specifically catering for an audience of young girls. Binoche, on her side, has matured beautifully as an actress since her early roles in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf and the Trois Coleurs-trilogy together with Krzysztof Kieslowski. Her English is fantastic now, and she has added a warmth and joy to her acting that really shows and which is promising for the future.

Chocolat, a novel by Joanne Harris; copyright 1999 by Joanne Harris. Originally published in Great Britain by Doubleday, 1999.

The movie based on this book has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it. It is a gently narrated story of the triumph of the joy of life over repression. There are love and death, children and old people, conflict and resolution. So when I found a copy of the book in my local used book store I was eager to see what the movie was based on. The clerks, who know my tastes and share them in many ways, warned me that the movie was nothing like the book. This is to be expected, I thought. When translating from the page to the screen, the story must change; the demands of the medium are different.

They were right. The book is nothing like the movie. The movie is a light confection. A mild temptation. A Venus' Nipple. A sweet bonbon. The book is a sensuous plunge into a deep dark dessert. It is a tiramisu. It is a deliciously rich indulgence. The story, while changed, is still the same. All the characters are there, but they are given heft. Everything has a deeper meaning. There is connection to dire, secret past events. The resolution is less sweet, but perhaps more complete.

Vianne Rochet and her six year old daughter Anouk arrive in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a tiny French village of "two hundred souls at most, no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux" during the Carnival of Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the last fling before the start of Lent in this conservative Catholic town. The villagers are polite to the strangers, but curious when Vianne leases the old bakery shop and moves in upstairs. When she opens La Celeste Praline, Chocolaterie Artisanale, the town becomes divided about this change. For some, the shop is not appropriate for their way of life. Perhaps in Paris or Nice a fancy chocolate shop would be welcome, but there is no place in Lansquenet for such indulgence. Others see no harm and find the new business a refreshing change.

On one side is Father Reynaud, the town's priest, who has decided that Vianne and her shop are a deliberate affront to his dignity and a threat to the faith of his parishioners, with the villagers who do not like change in their quiet lives backing him. On the other side are those who are more open-minded and who have befriended Vianne. The conflict deepens with the arrival of The Travelers, a loose community of vagabond river people who want to tie up near the town for a few weeks while they make repairs to the boats that serve as their homes. La Praline is one thing, but to Reynaud these people are obviously criminals and a real threat to his community. When Vianne and her friends help the Travelers and give them work, Reynaud declares war.

As the story winds through Lent, culminating in a Festival of Chocolate on Easter Sunday, we learn of the secrets in Father Reynaud's past. We see the blooming of Josephine after Vianne helps her leave her abusive husband. We sympathize with Armande, the eighty year old widow as she faces failing health, and see her reconciled with her grandson. The story has many threads and they are woven together to make a lovely tapestry.

From one angle, the theme of the book is the conflict between the conservatism of the traditional Catholic viewpoint and the free thinking joy in life of the frankly pagan Vianne, but if you squint just a little and turn your head just so, the story is about the triumph of life for all. Reynaud and Vianne are both dealing with shadows in their past, and deaths there. The conflicts are there to be faced by all, and in the end death is there as well, but death is just a part of life, to be accepted and dealt with.

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