MovieBinoche Makes the Very Best “Chocolat”

In a small French village focused on purity, morality, and tranquillity, you look the other way if you see something you aren’t supposed to. Overall, there is a peaceful exterior to the town. But there is a craving for something more bubbling just below the surface. It’s a craving for “Chocolat.”

When Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter Anouk come to the small village, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, to start a chocolate shop (coincidentally) during Lent, the stagnant town of tranquillity gets a shaking it’s not quite ready for.

Vianne and the mayor of the village, the hardheaded, overly moral Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), involve themselves in a heated competition. As the mayor sees it, it’s good versus evil. As Vianne sees it, it’s chocolate versus narrow mindedness. So lay down your $5.00, and let the battle begin!

Narrated as a fairy tale, this movie captures feelings of self-discovery, innocence, rebellion, and above all, HUNGER. The craving for chocolate is what brings the hesitant villagers to the chocolaterie, and a revitalized sense of self is what they leave with. Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart.

The exquisite scenery lures you into this seemingly fairy-tale land of small town France, but it’s the characters that keep you there.

Vianne is a very developed character; her pain and frustrations are projected perfectly through Juliette Binoche’s beautifully expressive face. Her inner turmoil, along with her battle against the self-restraint Lansquenet-sous-Tannes prides itself on, makes her not only an interesting character but also one to sympathize with. She is a strong, independent woman with a friendly heart and a mind for business. Considering that this takes place long before women’s lib, Vianne’s determination and strength are even more respectable.

The big surprise in “Chocolat” is Victoire Thivisol, who vividly portrays the struggle of Anouk, a vivacious six year old who only wants to settle down and make friends, but instead lives a nomadic life with her mother, selling chocolate town-to-town. With her mother an outcast, she cannot find a companion her age whose parents don’t forbid association.

Several recognizable faces light up the screen, such as Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix”), Judi Dench (“Shakespeare In Love” and “The World is Not Enough”), Lena Olin (“The Ninth Gate” and “Mystery Men”), and Peter Stormare (“Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski”). Their supporting roles add a sparkle to the movie, and sometimes steal the show from the leads.

While the previews for “Chocolat” show Johnny Depp as being one of the main characters, he doesn’t show up until halfway through the film as Roux, a “river rat.” His on-screen time is relatively short, but his contribution to the film cannot go unnoted. Roux too is caught in the battle against the prejudices of the village, but, unlike Vianne, he is not vying for acceptance. Like the river he travels on, he flows over the rocks that will him to stop.

Lasse Hallstrom works his directorial magic yet again with vivid imagery and a powerful story line. Hallstrom is proof that, as a director, it pays to be choosy if you want to be an acclaimed professional.

Already a notable director in his native country, Sweden, he is climbing the ladder in America with such movies as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Something to Talk About,” “The Cider House Rules,” and now “Chocolat.”

Hallstrom manages to transcribe an already moving story with excellent characters onto the silver screen without butchering the original literary work (“Chocolat” is also a novel by Joanne Harris). He has done this successfully several times, “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules” being the most well known.

There is an array of colorful characters in this movie, and it is impossible to be bored. Some may say that the story is too simple, but it is the simplicity of the tale that will engage you. With so many movies out that pride themselves on complex plots designed to confuse an audience, it’s nice to see a simple and beautiful story unblemished by an anxious who-dun-it plot.

It may be true that they don’t make movies like they used to, but “Chocolat” comes incredibly close.