Reviewed by Greg Spearritt
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, My Life as a Dog);
written by Robert Nelson Jacobs; based on the novel by Joanne Harris. Rated PG-13.
It’s 1959, and “a sly wind from the north” blows two strangers into a small French village. The mother, Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) set up a chocolate shop across the way from the village Church where observance of Lent is seriously getting underway. Under the spell of Vianne’s vibrant personality, her mouthwatering temptations and her knack for identifying each customer’s favorite delicacy, the sleepy town begins to stir.
However, Mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) – Church stalwart and self-appointed protector of morals – bullies the green young priest into condemning from the pulpit all forms of self-indulgence including, pointedly, chocolate. The Comte also ensures that those who choose to stray from the path of orthodox living (read: John Howard’s ’family values’) are anathema in the eyes of Holy Mother Church.
The battle is joined: will the ’tranquillity’ of ages born of certainty, order and dour authority survive this onslaught of ’freedom’?
Don’t see Chocolat if you’re hoping for another Like Water for Chocolate or Babette’s Feast. The film was, though, apparently, an attempt at Academy Award material (which may explain why it was in English, rather than in French with subtitles).
Chocolat is pretty, if predictable. One reviewer has said, “It wants desperately to seem like a hand-made delight, but you can tell it came from a factory.” It is enjoyable, though, as light entertainment: for a rainy afternoon it certainly beats ’reality TV’ hands down.
One suspects, however, that few at the Vatican would enjoy Chocolat. They would like neither the portrayal of the village church – as humourless and self-righteous – nor its eventual capitulation to a secular (or more properly, pagan) love of life.
Jesus – and a very ’Jesus Seminar’ Jesus at that – is found not in Church, but behind the shingle of the Chocolate shop. It’s Vianne who rocks the town’s values and brings it to life by accepting and transforming the outcast, the hurt and abused. It is she, not the champion of the Church nor even the well-meaning padre, who heals and reconciles. She is the one with insight and compassion, she the one who embraces life.
Chocolat serves up what we want and expect. It assumes that we inhabit an age at ease with the rejection of religious authority, an age which embraces the human face of Jesus, tolerance, diversity, creativity, religious pluralism and the senses. There is no problem attending Mass on Easter Morning, then surging into the street for ’fertility festival’ celebrations. Is our world really such a Sea-of-Faith kind of place?