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Chocolat   C-

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Writer: Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on the novel by Joanne Harris)
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Victoire Thivisol, Johnny Depp, Hugh O'Conor, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Judi Dench.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's nothing like unwarranted praise to turn an otherwise mediocre piece of fluff into a hateful testament to Hollywood ego. The robber barons at Miramax pictures have apparently decided that they should have a continuous lock on quality films, and have resolutely set out to claim Oscar glory from more deserving candidates. Every year, they launch a fearsome marketing campaign -- as meticulous and complex and Patton's assault on Sicily -- and every year, their efforts pay off. In the process, they have championed some very questionable pieces of "art", films whose banality only becomes clear in the spotlight they shine on it. This year's specimen is Chocolat, a forgettable bit of nothing whose greatest transgression is claiming to be more than it is. It attempts to strike a tone of magical realism, telling the fairy-tale-like story of candy triumphing over spiritual malaise. But its efforts to walk on air are consistently undermined by the solemn-yet-gutless lecturing it feels compelled to inflict upon us.

On the surface, there's plenty to like. Director Lasse Hallstrom (whose Cider House Rules was last year's Miramax molehill) establishes a suitably picturesque French town where tradition and piety have given way to intolerance. Led by the stern Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina, complete with moustache to twirl), they rigidly adhere to a regimen of denial and repression... until the "mischievous north wind" blows a confectioner named Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter to town. They promptly set up a sinful candy shop in the middle of Lent, driving the Comte and his followers into fits. At first, the unspoken social war is relatively mild but when Vianne helps a battered wife (Lena Olin) take shelter from her abusive husband (Peter Stormare) -- in violation of their marriage vows -- the Comte escalates matters. He dedicates himself to driving out such a sinful free thinker no matter what the price.

At the very least, Chocolat is an improvement over Cider House. Hallstrom keeps his story more or less in focus and manages to maintain his narrative threads well enough. He's always had an eye for performers and the cast here is solid, if not overwhelming. (Judi Dench, as Vianne's crotchety landlady, and Johnny Depp, playing a gypsy rogue, are particularly noteworthy.) The cinematography paints a pleasing picture and if they had all just stuck to such fluffy trappings, we'd all be a lot better off.

The trouble comes with Chocolat's misguided efforts to raise the material to Something Important. Hallstrom periodically brings a serious air to the proceedings infusing less-than-subtle sermons on spousal abuse, prejudice, and the value of accepting difference. His subjects can't support such weighty issues, and Chocolat ends up biting off far more than it can chew. We're supposed to deplore the townsfolk who engage in fairly fairly nasty acts of discrimination, then marvel at Vianne's ability to win them over. We're led to despise Stormare's drunkard husband, but never see him as any more than a stereotype. Even when the commentary works, it comes across as so gutless and wishy-washy that its points hardly matter. Important themes always have controversy attached to them; Chocolat shies away from the sharper edges of its lessons, while still expecting us to take them seriously.

The magical realism falters as well. Though Chocolat presents its title treats as "sinfully scrumptious" -- the same sort of passionate treats as Big Night and Like Water For Chocolate -- Hallstrom never quite conveys the right amount of desire. They seem tempting enough, but never convey the glowing radiance that Hallstrom clearly wants to infuse them with. Parts of the film try to appear larger than life, weaving fairy tale magic into an otherwise naturalistic setting, but they can't extricate themselves from the very ugly social realities lurking just around the corner. Every time we feel lifted by the film -- every time we start to buy into its whispery themes -- it brings us crashing back to earth with its ham-handed lecturing. No confection can support that kind of whiplash.

And now, thanks to Miramax, it stands on a pedestal that reveals its shortcomings to the world. Blessed with a slew of Oscar nods while the likes of Wonder Boys and Requiem for Dream are ignored, its flaws go from more or less forgivable to supremely irritating. I know it's not fair to judge a film based on unwarranted praise, but Chocolat's new status as Oscar darling only make us more aware of its threadbare nature. As a lighter-than-air fairy tale, it wasn't going to send anyone soaring. But to seriously compare it to the likes of Traffic or Crouching Tiger is a fatal blow to an already shaky motion picture. Like the creations in Vianne's window, Chocolat looks quite inviting... making it all the more bitter when we find its hollow center.

Review published 03.01.2001.

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