2000: A Semi-Defense of “Chocolat”

This article originally appeared on The Film Experience

The 2000 Best Picture lineup features a blockbuster swords-and-sandals crowd-pleaser, a star vehicle about corporate evil, an ensemble on the war on drugs, and an epic martial arts foreign language film.  Those four films are unassailable in this lineup, but then there’s the fifth film: Lasse Hallstrom’s romantic dramedy Chocolat. The film’s legacy is more entrenched in controversy; as its nominations are attributed to shameless Oscar campaigning by Miramax and Harvey Weinstein.  But is it the terrible, no-good, very bad film its reputation has made it out to be?  The short answer is no, but the long answer is a bit more nuanced…

The film stars Juliette Binoche as a wandering chocolatier who lands in a conservative religious French village to open up a chocolate shop, right at the beginning of Lent.  She runs afoul of the local mayor (Alfred Molina) while befriending her landlady (Judi Dench), an abused woman (Lena Olin) and a band of river nomads led by Johnny Depp.

The film is presented as a light-hearted comedy with relatively low stakes.  The mayor is the main person who wants to get rid of Binoche’s Vianne, and that is mostly through political and societal pressure.  But, Vianne’s charm and hospitality ingrain her to the townspeople.  Dench’s character is estranged from her daughter (Carrie Anne Moss), but her relationship with her grandson bridges that gap in little time. A subplot involving domestic abuse ends with a bonk on the head with a frying pan, and laughter. Hallstrom and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs could have gone deeper on any number of topics they address but they fall well short of making any impact. Even when things get dark, a humorous tone takes over and brightens up the shadows. 

Binochete is a warm delight.  The French actress is such a unique talent and fine dramatic actress that you can forget how much of a luminous movie-star presence she can be. She doesn’t do much shouting or grand proclamations, and she doesn’t skew to overly quirky or off-the-wall.  Vianne is a lovely woman who treats people with kindness and never judges, and Binoche underplays the part to perfection.  Her voice stays a slight level above a whisper and sets the audience at ease whenever she is on screen, which is quite often.

Nathaniel tells us that Judi Dench and Lena Olin get plenty of discussion time in next week’s Smackdown so let’s skip passed them for now.

Johnny Depp plays a dreamy long-haired river pirate with an Irish accent by-way-of Florida.  He plays the guitar far more often than you would expect and does little more than be pretty and kind to children.  He was still be three years away from superstardom Pirates of the Caribbean, but the breadcrumbs are there.

And finally there’s… Alfred Molina.  Let me preface this by saying I enjoy Molina in almost everything and the fact that he has no Oscar nominations is criminal  That being said, his character Reynaud brings the film to a screeching halt each time he appears, which is frequently.  It feels appropriate that Molina played Snidley Whiplash in Dudley Do-Right the year before because his role is almost entirely scheming and twirling his mustache.  His character’s adherence to tradition and morality is shown as thinly veiled compensation and his clashes with Vianne are unnecessary and cruel.

The film’s climax centers around Reynaud reaching the end of his rope and asking God for help in quelling Vianne’s sweet temptations.  He goes to Vianne’s shop with a knife and begins chopping away at her confections when a bit of chocolate lands on his lips.  Reynaud gives in and begins to sprawl out on the chocolate display and devours every piece he can before he begins to cry and falls asleep.  For the life of me, I cannot tell what Hallstrom was going for in this scene.  He might have been trying to go over the top with comedy, or maybe it was supposed to be pathetic, but whatever he was going for, it’s just painfully awkward. And it’s the climax!  The next morning, Vianne finds Reynaud, everyone agrees that everyone is cool with each other and the film essentially ends.  

Hindsight being what it is, the Miramax/Weinstein of it all feels all the ickier when it comes to the film’s five Oscar nominations. Still, the film was popular with audiences, earning over $71 million domestically, despite never making more than $6 million a weekend; it stayed in theaters for seven months! Out of context of the Oscar race and notions of “best” Chocolat is arguably a delightful, middle-of-the-day movie you can watch with your grandparents, awkward climax aside. And who would want to deny Juliette Binoche a chance to shine?

When was the last time you saw Chocolat?

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