Juliette Binoche stars as a chocolatier who moves through the world with her daughter, dispersing old world wisdom as she goes and releasing people from their inhibitions with the power of delicious chocolate. When she arrives in a small religious community during lent and begins to produce her chocolate it angers certain members of the neighborhood and tensions rise until the power of chocolate is set to battle against religious temperance. If this all sounds a little incredible then that’s because it is, this film sets itself up as being a fairy tale which flirts with magical realism and witchcraft. There is no concern about being entirely realistic here, just about telling a heartwarming story.
Many critics take issue with how frivolously Chocolat deals with its discussion on religion, right wing politics and the fear of the outsider but I’m of the opinion that this is a pretty well balanced film. You don’t go into this expecting a rigorous and tough to watch depiction of intolerance and fear, this is more of a light souffle to gobble up on a warm afternoon – if you’ll excuse the inevitable food reference. That having been said there is enough here to generate some depth and greater staying power in what would otherwise be purely food-porn, but if the themes had been pushed too much further and investigated deeper then it would have surely broken the film. After all its premise lies in the power of chocolate to solve all your problems and it’s the film’s lighthearted fairy tale trappings which makes that work.
One of the film’s great joys is found in the display of talent across the full breadth of the cast; Binoche radiates warmth, serenity and wisdom in the lead role here, Judi Dench is fairly delightful as her cranky landlady, Alfred Molina is as dependable as ever as the Comte de Reynaud who sets himself against the chocolate shop and Johnny Depp perfectly matches Binoche as a Irish gypsy who lives a free life, going wherever the wind pulls him. The movie owes a great deal to its cast for if it weren’t for the excellent work put in by all then this fable may have felt a little flat, but Binoche is perfect casting here for embodying a magical knowing-ness and Molina makes what is inherently a somewhat silly character journey into something believable. Also a word has to be said for Carrie-Anne Moss who has a relatively small but well played role here which is a million miles away from her persona in The Matrix.
Frankly I enjoyed my time with Chocolat. Perhaps it could have been more critical and have more depth but that would have resulted in a completely different film really, perhaps that should be left to a different filmmaker with different goals. I like the focus on fairy tales, on ancient customs and the power of food and chocolate to change a persons fortunes. It may be fantastical but that’s OK once in while, especially so when it is conveyed with such lovely performances from a talented cast. The film makes use of storytelling across the generations as a story device and ultimately that’s what it boils down to be; a story that feels part fable and part true, that you can imagine hearing from your mother every-night as you fall asleep – it’s a dream I wouldn’t mind revisiting someday.
What is the film’s greatest strength? Binoche’s sensual and intelligent performance.
Its greatest weakness? Molina’s character arc borders on being too lightly written.
Would I see it again? Yes, I look forward to seeing it again someday.
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