Lasse Hallström once made interesting layered movies about some fascinating characters, like My Life as a Dog and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, that appealed to many arthouse lovers. Something went awry after that, however. Hallström still gathers talented casts together and knows how to shoot picturesque films in locations as beautiful as the Maine woods and along provincial French river, but he now pitches softballs for Oscar nomination hunts. To appeal to the masses, Hallström has simplified his films and now preaches relentlessly for goodness.
While the script for Chocolat is adapted from Joanne Harris’ novel, it could have been inspired by Conari Press’ Random Acts of Kindness. We’ve seen similar films that use food as a metaphor to impart matters of the heart and spirit before. Babette’s Feast is a wonderful austere French film where a French cook lovingly prepares a French feast for some conservative Danish Protestants that becomes a spiritual experience. However, that film relies on character development and subtleties that mainstream audiences don’t care for, so Reverend Hallström teaches us with a parable.
The parable begins “once upon a time” in a small French village on a Sunday afternoon near the beginning of Lent. It’s a village that has existed virtually unchanged for many years, as everyone know his place in life, which includes attending Mass every Sunday. Things are about to change – the north winds blow ominously and a red hooded mother and daughter have just arrived to open a chocolate shop.
In actuality the year is 1959, though in a town without automobiles it would be difficult to tell without a clue about the year being 15 years after the War and with the priest singing an Elvis Presley styled “Hound Dog” in his garden. Also a spiritual war will be waged between the conservative organized religious forces led by the town’s mayor Comte De Reynaud (Alfred Molina) and the more tolerant pagan/secular forces led by Vianne (Juliette Binoche) from her chocolate shop.
There are multiple troubles in the town, but none that can’t be solved by one of Vianne’s chocolate potions. One nutty chocolate confection works wonders on a listless husband better than Viagra, oysters, and adult porn, while another chocolate treat enables Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin) to gain the courage to flee her abusive husband (Peter Stormare). Best of all, Vianne’s hot chocolate mole loosens up crotchety landlord Armande (Judi Dench), who at first calls Vianne’s décor “early Mexican brothel.”
Other troubles include Armande’s busted relationship with her daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix), who is widowed, and with Reynaud, whose wife has abandoned him. And finally we see Johnny Depp as Roux and his river gypsies, who are regarded by the good townspeople as ultimate heathens and outcasts.
Can it be that our pagan choclateer Vianne can carry on her missionary work through her acts of kindness and supplying just the right chocolate potion? It’s a fable, so ultimately predictable, but there are some charms along the way.
With so much of the movie revolving around Juliette Binoche’s character, she must carry the thin plot. She does so quite naturally in a wholesome way that would make Mary Poppins and Doris Day proud, and even shows a little spunk when challenged by the town’s prudes and by Josephine’s evil abusive husband. For the most part she has little to do because the script is so thin, so don’t expect any emotional fireworks like she does in Blue or in The English Patient. Her one crying scene comes across as fake and shallow, but that’s more due to the fairy tale nature of the film.
That’s the problem with many of the talented cast. Johnny Depp is charming, but not entirely believable as a bohemian river gypsy, nor does he exhibit that many sparks with Binoche. But he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, and the gypsies are used for stereotypes more than real people in the script. Similarly Peter Stormare plays the stereotype heavy bad guy, a little more talkative than his Fargo Marlboro man, but no depth required. Shallow caricatures are all that are required of Carrie-Anne Moss, and Alfred Molina for the most part. Molina does add a few layers to his paper-thin character by showing some tentativeness in approaching Moss and with his righteous anger at Stormare for misinterpreting his instructions.
The one supporting character that outshines her caricature is Judi Dench, who could probably render an Oscar worthy performance out of a recipe book. She takes over the screen whenever she enters the picture, and brings a few smiles for her loving cranky lines.
Actually Hallström does a good job presenting the script that he has. It’s a script designed for the mainstream audiences that are buying up all those Chicken Soup for the Soul books and who feel like they are doing great things by supporting positive pap. Maybe that’s all right for the Christmas season – the idea that a chocolate treat can compete with the other mainstream fare during the holiday season. The only edginess to the piece lies in the fact that we essentially have a pagan, who relies on ancient Mayan chocolate mole potions to teach righteous Christians how to get along with each other and make the world a better place.
It’s not a bad little movie and has the right sentiments, but Hallström should refrain from preachy parables and move on to an entrée.