We’ve heard about the endorphin enhancing properties of chocolate, but in Lasse Hallström’s sparkling new film based on Joanne Harris’ 1999 novel, it gains mystical status as a healing balm and a transforming elixir that unlocks desire and makes destiny clear. Chocolate becomes a metaphor for liberation.
Hallström turns Harris’ book into a delicious confection that has the sensual playfulness of Sirens, the aphrodisiac qualities of Like Water for Chocolate, the transforming joy of Babette’s Feast, and the sisterly camaraderie of Enchanted April. He ties the best of all those together in a whimsical fable for adults that is as beautifully packaged as a box of chocolate truffles.
Chocolat is set during the 1950s (though Harris’ book is set in modern times) in a storybook hilltop village of the French countryside. It’s a quiet village that the narrator tells us believes in tranquility, a place where people understand what is expected of them and where they know their place. If they see what they’re not supposed to see, like the bruises on a frightened wife’s face, they know they are supposed to look away. When the north wind brings a mysterious and exotic stranger (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter into the village, all of that is going to change.
Vianne and her daughter Anouk rent an apartment from Armande (Judi Dench), a 70-year-old libertine, and open a chocolaterie. They immediately set themselves apart as free-thinking non-conformists, which the by-the-books mayor (Alfred Molina) and prudish townspeople regard as scandalous and highly dangerous to the tranquility of the village. When the mayor invites Vianne to mass, she cheerfully informs him that she doesn’t attend. When he addresses her as madame, she quickly corrects him. She is a mademoiselle; she’s never been married. But her ultimate act of defiance is opening the enticing Chocolaterie Maya during Lent, which will surely lead the townspeople straight into the arms of temptation.
Vianne quickly sees through to the core of the townspeople. Not only can she spin a dish and tell them what their favorite chocolate is, but she can see into their hearts. She knows that the timid Josephine (Lena Olin) is abused by her loutish husband and terribly unhappy. She sees that Armande is estranged from her rigid daughter, and that the grandson she has been prevented from seeing is an overprotected child whose artistic talents are ignored. She sees that the mayor can’t accept the fact that his wife left him, and that the shy old gentleman with the sweet little dog is enamored of the widow (Leslie Caron) still mourning for her husband, killed in the first world war. She sees that the winning young priest, who likes to sing Elvis Presley tunes, is too passive to tell the mayor to stop writing his sermons for him. She sees it all and sets about to heal their pain with her curative chocolates.
The joy of this tale is the way Hallström, with his sure hand and infinite understanding of human relations and emotions, makes these fabled characters so genuinely human and multidimensional. Each performance he coaxes from this talented cast is a small treasure. Even the characters you might be tempted to dismiss as rigid or bad-natured, like the moralizing mayor and Josephine’s brutish husband, are given a vulnerability that make them sympathetic.
Vianne, too, isn’t a simple heroine. She turns out to be as vulnerable as those she wants to heal. She’s a wanderer by birthright. Her pharmacist father went to Central America to study medicine, and drank cocoa spiced with chile just as the ancient Mayans did to unlock hidden desire and foretell destiny. There he met Vianne’s mother, an exotic beauty whose people moved with the winds from village to village dispensing ancient cocoa remedies. Vianne has followed in her mother’s footsteps, taking Anouk with her from village to village. But Anouk is tired of moving around, and even Vianne, the happy wanderer, secretly longs to belong. Being an outcast pains her. As she later confesses, “It’s not easy being different.”
She befriends a handful of people who march to their own tune and frequent her shop, despite the mayor’s admonitions to steer clear of “Satan’s helper.” Her cadre of supporters include people like Josephine, whom she empowers to leave her abusive husband, and the shy old gentleman, whom she encourages to court the widow. Then there’s the couple who has re-ignited their passion thanks to Vianne’s chocolate and chiles. (“They melt ever so slowly on your tongue and torture you with pleasure.”)
Johnny Depp shows up late in the movie as a kindred spirit, who wanders from town to town on a riverboat. Like Vianne, Roux is a wanderer, regarded as dangerous and immoral. The price of belonging, he has concluded, is too high. The mayor starts a moral crusade against Roux and his kind. Roux and Vianne are dangerous in the way any free-thinking person threatens the status quo of a culture. They not only enjoy life’s rich and diverse pleasures, they encourage others to explore their creative potential, to recognize their desires, to think for themselves and to question tradition—considered akin to heresy by those desperate to maintain control.
Hallström’s enchanting film is ultimately about transformation, humanity, kindness and tolerance. As the priest finally says in his own words, “We can’t measure goodness by what we don’t do, by what we resist and who we exclude, but by what we embrace and who we include.” Real freedom is only possible when we abandon the comforts of the old tranquility.
Chocolat (PG-13) HHH1/2 Directed by Lasse Hallström. Starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp.