02 May 2010

Review: "Chocolat"

Like the villagers in the film, I have finally relented and succumbed to the powers of Chocolat. Those who know me know that there is no love lost between Johnny Depp and I. His earlier films are very good (Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994)), but his later films, like 2010's Alice in Wonderland and Public Enemies (2009) have been disappointing. But let's not get carried away, there is only one reason I ever considered watching Chocolat: Lena Olin. She will forever be Irina Derevko, from television's Alias, and I will always adore her in a an inappropriate manner. Chocolat is a 2002 film directed by Lasse Hollstrom, the acclaimed Swedish director known for directing ABBA music videos and the films What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) and The Cider House Rules (1999). He is also the husband of Lena Olin, hence her appearance in many of his films. The film received five unsuccessful Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Best Picture (losing to Gladiator), Best Actress for Juliette Binoche (losing to Julia Roberts) and Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench (losing to Marcia Gay Harden). I was pleasantly surprised that the film was not anchored by Johnny Depp. Chocolat is ruled by its whimsical tone and the incredible performances by its actresses. Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, Carrie Anne Moss and the young Victoire Thivisol are mesmerizing as strong-willed women. Chocolat may come across as a light-hearted fable, but its themes of courage and independence are loud and clear.

Though it may feel like the nineteenth century, Chocolat is set in a small French village in 1959. The town is ruled by the conservation mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who believes that every villager should attend Mass every Sunday and even goes as far as to write the sermons for the priest, Père Henri (Hugh O'Connor). The town is startled when Vianne (Binoche) arrives with her young daughter Anouk (Thivisol). She dares to open a chocolaterie at the start of Lent, refuses to attend church and is an unwed mother. The Comte believes that she will not last until Easter, and this sentiment is echoed by the pious Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Anne Moss). Caroline went as far as to disown her free-spirit mother, Armande (Dench), and will not let her see her grandson Luc (Aurélien Parent-Koening). Vianne has a gift of knowing which a person's favourite type of chocolate and her unique talent helps her to rekindle a couple's passion and give one women the courage to leave her drunk, abusive husband. This woman, Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin), eventually moves into Vianne's apartment and learns the technique of making chocolate. The Comte does not see Vianne as a true threat until a group of river rats arrive in town. Vianne befriends a man named Roux (Johnny Depp) and his presence angers the Comte. The Comte de Reynaud struggles to use Caroline and Serge, Josephine's abusive husband, against Vianne and the villagers' true nature is soon revealed.

As the film began I was struck by the dissimilarity between Chocolat and another film set during that period. An Education, the 2009 Academy Award-nominated film that also stars Alfred Molina, is set in 1961 and is vastly different in setting. This period was just before The Beatles arrived and changed music, but Chocolat feels as if it was set a century earlier. The cinematography is beautiful and it is easy to believe that this village is ruled by the evil Comte de Reynaud. Juliette Binoche is a beautiful actresses, and while I prefer her in French films like Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993) and l'Heure d'été (2008), she is nonetheless an amazing actress, as is evident in her Academy Award-winning performance in The English Patient (1996). Judi Dench, like Binoche, is mesmerizing in the film. She may not have the youthful charm of a young actress, but she commands the screen. For me, the film belonged to the young Victoire Thivisol. She acted beyond her years against a trio of powerful actresses and she was the emotional core of the film. Chocolat is a fun and charming film that shows us how easily positivity and optimism can affect others.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

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