Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Chocolat



US 2000
dir Lasse Hallstrom
scr Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on novel by Joanne Harris)
cin Roger Pratt
stars Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Judi Dench
121 minutes

The Oscar voters were widely and correctly ridiculed for naming Chocolat among their five best pictures of the year. There are, however, worse ways of spending two hours than watching Binoche and Depp in a sweetly romantic fable, if that’s your kind of thing. Shes Viane, who opens a chocolate shop in a sleepy French 50s town. Her mysterious Guatemalan recipes encourage the locals to let their hair down, but stuffy aristocrat-mayor Molina isn’t keen on anything new or different – river-boat gypsy traveller Depp included.

While there’s not much here to stretch the stars, they all play it pretty straight, with only Hugh OConors nervy young priest and Lena Olins battered wife veering towards caricature Directors Wife Syndrome in action there, perhaps. While its nice to see three generations of French actresses represented by Binoche, child star Victoire Thivisol (Ponette) and veteran Leslie Caron, the other characters mouth a jarring French-American hybrid. Except Depp, of course, who gets away with a very mild Irish brogue, despite playing a character named Roux.

Strumming his steel guitar, Django style, in shades and leather jacket, he’s a visible reminder that Chocolats 1959 setting coincides with Godards A Bout de Souffle revolutionising French cinema – though Hallstroms approach is firmly from the as if punk never happened school of picture-box prettiness. It isn’t too fanciful to see Vianes activities as a metaphor for Godards, however, as chocolate seems to stand for just about everything and anything except for fattening confectionery

The script defuses most potential lines of critical skepticism, however, by explicitly making Chocolat a bedtime story told by a mother to her daughter and most audiences should be able to work out fairly quickly who’s doing the narrating. This structure allows for all sorts of romanticised flourishes Binoche and Depps encounter on a candlelit barge being the dreamiest, with deliberate shades of LAtalante. In the final seconds, there are even restrained touches of magical realism.

Chocolat is knocked together from a well-tested recipe, with equal elements of the nasty-mayors-upstaged-by-insurgent-libertine genre (Footloose, Pleasantville) and the weird-newcomer-unlocks-real-selves-of-townspeople school, which has tended mainly towards the sinister – Something Wicked This Way Comes, Needful Things though there are benign precedents, such as the Tony Randall vehicle Seven Faces of Dr Lao. This is definitely part of the feelgood school – and just as Hallstroms Cider House Rules delivered a pro-abortion (or, rather, pro-choice) message inside tearjerking melodrama, Chocolat coats its liberal non-conformism inside a deceptively sugary exterior. The Swedes doggedly careful approach, however, suggests he himself could do with a couple of jolts of that fine Guatemalan coca…

February 28th, 2001

by Neil Young