Director : Lasse Hallström
Writers: Joanne Harris (novel)
Country: UK/US (Film is set in France)
Food Consultant: Walter Bienz (chocolate expert)
Film Rating: 8/10
Foodie Rating: 8/10
Cocoa-based joy lies at the heart of Lasse Hallström’s romantic drama set in 1950’s France. First a word of warning. Note the lack of ‘e’ in the title. If you get Prachya Pinkaew’s 2008 film Chocolate you may well be in for a shock if you were expecting some sort of Milkybar huggy romance film. Instead you would see a remarkable, exciting and somewhat violent Thai martial-arts film (which is highly recommended if you like remarkable, exciting and somewhat violent Thai martial-arts films) rather than the rather more sedate environment of period piece Chocolat, a film about religion, society, families, romance and, of course, chocolate.
It’s 1959. Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) arrive at a small village, seeking accommodation and business premises. They find a useful property which suits their purposes in a tranquil location in France. Vianne’s skill – indeed her destiny – lies with her ability to be an inventive and perceptive chocolatier who can accurately detect the particular desires of any potential customer. Furthermore, she is a compassionate and caring person who utilises her distinct culinary abilities to absolve people of social or psychological issues even if they were unaware of those problems themselves.
But the apparent idyll of the delightful location has some problems. Vianne arrives during Lent and the village’s dictatorial mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) has a strong interpretation of biblical edicts and insists on his parishioners steadfastly following the rules of fasting and avoiding the temptations of glorious gluttony. He even alters the parish priest’s sermons to dictate his own religious views. Vianne carries on regardless, determined by her destiny to aid the villagers with their personal problems through the medium of chocolate; these include family conflicts, a housewife being beaten by her drunken husband and her curmudgeonly and melancholy landlady, a grandmother denied access to her artistic grandson because she fell out with her daughter, a lady who subscribes to the mayor’s dominant beliefs. When a group of river Roma arrive at the outskirts of the village this creates further tensions particularly when Vianne forms a friendship with the anti-establishment but delightful guitar playing Roux (Johnny Depp). Naturally the authoritarian Comte de Reynaud sees this as a further plot to undermine his idealistic perceptions of virtue for the village and seeks to remove both the Roma and the chocolatier. But perhaps his own sins are to become apparent especially, it seems, when chocolate is involved.
There is so much to enjoy in the food depiction in the film from its creation to its final instigation. Vianne instigates her skills in multiple ways to accentuate her art and administer the correct form of chocolate for her many customers. So there’s chilli in the hot-chocolate concoction that has exceptional taste and a variety of aphrodisiac sweets, mood enhancers and delicately modelled confections that serve as an advert for her artistry as much as they emphasise the visual delights of her amazing products. Chocolate may be considered to be an indulgent food but here it is used to heal lost souls. There are a few moments of culinary horror amidst the joy of chocolate as we experience a scene of outrageous gorging – during Lent! – which forms part of the dénouement in the film’s relationship between mayor and chocolatier. And there is more trouble when in a moment of conflicting interests between mother and daughter concerning their respective futures when a valuable container of cacao is smashed, the dust powder scattered amidst the shattered pottery.
Johnny Depp return to confection as the chocolatier Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Juliette Binoche’s Vianne provides gastronomic supremacy way ahead of Tim Burton’s fantasy chocolate intermixture.
A delightful story about families, food, human frailties and redemption, Chocolat is a joy for both foodies and hopeless romantics.
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