Johnny Depp, a river rat passing through town, dances with Judi Dench, a diabetic chocolate-lover, in the film Chocolat.
Running time: 2 hours
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp
Playing in Bratislava at: Charlie Centrum
Rating: 8 out of 10
The makers of Chocolat followed a simple recipe: mix one heaping tablespoon of tried-and-true actors with a dash of classical music and jazz, roll into a heart-warming plot and bake in an eccentric French village.
The result: a film that is light and sweet at first bite, but which leaves a rich and gratifying aftertaste.
Juliette Binoche stars as Vianne, a vagabond chocolate maker who arrives "on a sly breeze" one day in a puritanical French village where "if you saw something you weren't supposed to see, you looked the other way". Her timing couldn't be worse: the Christian holiday of Lent has just started, and in this part of la campagne, that means six weeks of strict self-denial. Even croissants and jam are forbidden.
Vianne builds a chocolate shop and draws the ire of the local Count, who also functions as village mayor, landlord and inspector of individual piety. Under his disapproving gaze, Vianne stirs up the villagers' staid lives with spiked sweets and impious suggestions. A bored housewife discovers the joys of marriage with chocolate aphrodisiacs; an old man courts a widow who's been in mourning since WWI with candy; a battered housewife finds the courage to flee her husband with Vianne's support.
Questions arise: Where is Vianne from? How can she earn a living selling chocolates in a small village, especially when she gives out so many free samples? Why would such a free spirit choose to settle in a small and dourly Christian village?
A well-placed bit of background provides the answers and transforms the film into a modern-day fairy tale: Vianne's mother was from a Mayan tribe that wandered the South American countryside using ancient chocolate recipes to unlock yearnings and reveal destinies.
Chocolat gains energy and charm from that point on, as Vianne pushes the villagers to resolve the contradiction between their sensual natures and their pious traditions. Judi Dench (Queen Elizabeth from Shakespeare in Love) is touching as a vulgar, crotchety grandmother who softens in her battle with her prudish daughter; Lena Olin is convincing as the skittish battered wife, and Binoche shines in the lead role as the bewitching outsider saving locals from the trap their own lives have become.
Ultimately, Vianne must contend with the Count if she is to last in the village. "My family expelled the Huguenots," he warns. "You present a lesser challenge." The arrival of a clan of river rats led by a guitar playing Johnny Depp, to whom Vianne takes a shine, but whom the Count loathes, raises the stakes in their personal battle (and injects lively Django Reinhardt jazz numbers into the film's mostly classical score). But the Count eventually proves more vulnerable to temptation than he at first seemed, and has both a sweet tooth and soft core.
Everything comes together in Chocolat's closing scenes - the interwoven plot lines, unresolved love, the exquisite shots of chocolate. The only question is whether Vianne will decamp to a new town or relinquish life on the road. But either way, in a movie like this, you couldn't have a sour ending.
28. May 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds