When a “sly” north wind blows open the doors of a village church in the middle of a sleepy Lenten service in the opening scene of Lasse Hollstrom’s “Chocolat”, it hardly takes a clever viewer to predict that the little town is about to experience some turbulence. Whether or not “Chocolat” succeeds as a movie despite its tiresome predictability and less-than-compelling sentimentality is harder to judge.
Set in 1950s provincial France, “Chocolat” juxtaposes the stringent principles of Catholic conduct upheld by the town’s mayor, the Comte De Reynaud (Alfred Molina), with the sensuality and spontaneity of its newcomer, the “chocolat”e-making Vienne (Juliette Binoche). Vienne and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) arrive with the north wind, clad in red cloaks that, contrasted with the townspeople’s functional clothing and black shoes, announce their trouble-making passion.
Vienne has never been married, does not go to church and is not about to hide either fact. Her opening of a chocolaterie in the middle of Lent is the final straw as far as the tyrannical mayor is concerned, and he makes clear his intention to indirectly force her out of business (and out of town) as soon as possible. As fast as Vienne struggles to form alliances with sweet-toothed townspeople, the mayor spreads the word that she is immoral and out to disturb the town’s precious tranquility.
The pillars of village society steer clear of Vienne and her tantalizing shop, though they cannot help but gape at her mouth-watering storefront display. Predictably, it is an outcast, an old woman, and a little boy who ignore the gossip and pledge their loyalty to Vienne (and her special hot cocoa, slightly spiced with chili pepper). Even more predictable is Vienne’s own befriending of a traveling gypsy named Roux (Johnny Depp), the ultimate dreg of the village hierarchy labeled a “river rat.”
In order to make friends and win acceptance for herself, her daughter and her shop of goodies, Vienne lures passers-by with the promise that she knows their favorite treat. Either she has a special skill or all of her customers are bonbon-deprived, because she is almost always right.
Unfortunately, all of the townspeople are as easily pegged by the viewer as they are pleased by Vienne’s treats on the house. Their characters are one-dimensional to say the least, less the result of bad acting than of badly written parts. Their interactions with Vienne follow a basic formula: They show up at or near the candy shop with their problems written on their faces, Vienne lures them with a treat, and they reveal their difficulties in a sentence. Then she fills their emotional voids with smiles and sugar.
The movie ignores complex psychological problems that lack easy solutions, opting instead to focus on overly simplified dilemmas with convenient answers. A woman abused by her husband (Judi Dench) turns to Vienne for help and in a short time morphs from a battered husk blaming herself for her bruises into a strong individual capable of withstanding her apparently reformed spouse’s advances. A warm and fuzzy evolution, if somewhat unbelievable. A young boy, who is practically caged by his mother and finds an outlet in drawing gory deaths, turns to the magical Vienne and in the process reunites with his grandmother and learns to behave like a happy, normal boy. How lovely for the little chap, but unfortunately the deep psychological trauma evidenced by his fascination with death is never even addressed.
Perhaps the greatest problem with the movie is its over-simplification of the mayor’s obsession with religious self-control and abstinence. Like many recent movies, “chocolat” reduces the whole of religion to the uptight self-righteousness of black-coated bigots, who are obviously under the delusion that an exploration of the nicer things in life is sinful. A little chocolate never hurt anyone, as Vienne says, and if only the hypocritical clergymen would indulge in chocolate, they would find their true capacity for experiencing life to the fullest. Conveniently, the film is set in France, where obesity has always been a relative rarity.
Disappointing as well is the movie’s insistence on squeezing a few laughs out of the use Vienne makes of chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers while developing her own romance with the riverman (Johnny Depp) to a fairly uninteresting degree. Although Depp has an enticing twinkle in his eye, he is relegated to the sidelines and never given the attention his acting ability merits. On the other hand, Vienne’s daughter is undeservedly put on center stage. Her invisible kangaroo friend that she totes about with her is more disturbing than amusing, and her fake French accent is at times painful.
Despite its many and varied faults, “Chocolat” is, in the end, not without merit. More often than not, it brings a smile to the open-minded viewer’s face despite its heavy-footed plot and lack of character development. Perhaps its simplistic charm derives from its avoidance of larger complexities. Or perhaps its redeeming enjoyableness comes from all the chocolate in the movie, which leaves any chocolate-lover craving Godiva.