Sunday, 30 August 2009

Escapism At Its Best: Chocolat

Sometimes it’s great to look at a film that you know is absolutely unreal. It’s not really a fantasy film, to be exact, but it’s a fantasy nevertheless. It was some time before I saw Chocolat. But one Christmas Eve while doing some Christmas shopping with my sister I decided I’d try this movie. And I was not disappointed. Chocolat is the story of a woman, Vianne, and how along with her love of chocolate she changed  a little town – Tranquilité. Chocolat is not a film that aims to delineate what life was like in those days. In fact, we can’t be certain the specific time period of the film, it's unimportant. It can be anywhere between the 1940s and the 1987s. But it is still a beautiful little film.

In the blistering snow one morning, two hooded figures trudge through the snow. It is the season of Easter, and in the little town of Tranquilité everyone can be found at Church. They are observing the beginning of Lent. Vianne and her daughter Anouk are meeting Armande Voizin. Vianne is buying her patisserie – turning it into a surprise shop. I’m sure we can all deduce what the surprise is. Burt this is not a thriller. There is an early scene that shows us Vianne’s character. It occurs when the town’s Mayor, Comte de Reynaud comes to visit her. He invites her to Sunday Service as she cleans the patisserie. She turns to him and smiles. We don’t go to church. This is the beginning of the major issue. Tranquilité is a town of religion. The Comte has a problem on his hands. And the solving of that problem is the story of Chocolat.

There is a nice scene early on. A nice montage begins as Vianne sets up her shop. It is underscored with some delightful music from Rachel Portman. Some little boys peer into the unfinished shop to see just what Vianne is doing in there. I heard she’s an atheist, one boy says. Another answers confused, What’s an atheist? The reply? Don't know? And with the opening of the Chocolaterrie everything begins to change in Tranquilité.

The beauty of Chocolat lies in the performance of Juliette Binoche as the protagonist. Juliette is one of the most effervescent European actresses and her work in The English Patient is my favourite Female Supporting Performance of the 90s. In Chocolat she does not have as profound a role as Hana, but it’s nice to see her play just for the romance. She is a major part of the reason that Chocolat is not just a flimsy film. It’s a showcase for her, and she elevates her character. I really enjoyed her performance. It’s not an ostensible comedy, but it’s just completely relaxing and enjoyable.

Of course, even though this film is a complete showcase for her, she does not do it all alone. Alfred Molina is wonderful as the Comte. It’s not a villainous role; the Count is just an extremely pious man. I love the scene where he’s fasting for Lent and he smells a piece of bread to assuage his hunger. It’s endearing. Judi Dench does her Mrs. Henderson shtick for the first time here, and she’s deliciously entertaining. I love Judi Dench in this mode, and it's my favourite supporting performance from her. Lena Olin and Carrie Ann Moss do well. Pitted against Binoche and Dench, they do not illuminate the screen...but they do the best with their roles. And despite some less that perfect scenes, there are moments of pure delight...and they have great chemistry with the cast. Hugh O'Conor in a throwaway role as a learning priest is quite good, if only showing the promise of what he could have become. And, then of course there is Mr. Depp. Notice I didn’t talk about his role in the film. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll leave it for you to see. Juliette and he seem like such an unlikely couple, but they’re sizzling together.

However, an important part of the film though, often forgotten are the two children Aurélien Parent-Koenig  as Luc Clairmont and
-->Victoire Thivisol as Anouk and.... despite not being a children’s film, there is much about children in the film…and they do well in their respective roles. Of course it’s nothing like Jamie Bell did in Billy Elliot that same year, but its nonetheless impressive.
Of course Chocolat and its pat resolution are not mirrors of real life. But that does not make it any less enjoyable as a film. Where is this utopian Tranquilité? Nowhere that I know. Where the only faults of people are being too good? This is not's a stolen season. But movies are not always to be real, sometime they can just be a perfect relaxant something to take us away from our troubles.

I don’t think that the people who dislike the movie dislike it for itself. They dislike it because it earned five Oscar nominations including Best Picture. I have no problem with Chocolat’s nomination as I love this movie. And what’s the funny is that the same people who hate this film’s nomination are pushing for Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight, Dick Tracy &etc to earn Best Picture nominations. Comic books adaptations are unrealistic, so why can't a non comic film be unrealistic too. Chocolat is not a badly made film, so much as it is a fanciful, enchanting bauble.


But Dear Reader, have your say? Does Chocolat irk you? Does it deserve the hype?


Danny King said...

I really liked this film. I don't know if I would call it one of my favorites, but I agree that it's certainly deserving of the Oscar praise it got, specifically for Binoche. She is remarkable. Absolutely perfect for the role and she played it perfectly. A great blend of character and actress.

anahita said...

no way!! I saw it for the first time on christmas eve several years ago too!! and yeah, I pretty much agree with everything you said. The film all round works, all the lil' elements of acting, score, direction etc come together and just fit. It ain't my favourite film, but it is ridiculously enjoyabe. and johnny depp is fairly swoonable :)

DEZMOND said...

Judie Dench makes magic whenever she appears on screen.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Damn damn damn ... I knew I'd forget something when I was making my Top 100 list! I left out "Chocolat," one of the very precious few romantic comedies I will cop to not just liking but loving. The Johnny Depp/Juliette Binoche combination is a winner because they have great chemistry and because both are off-the-beaten-path actors not afraid to take on unusual and inventive material.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

another Chocolat lover? absolutely lovely it makes me as happy as the fact that you're reading my archives :). good call on binoche and depp.

Malcolm said...

I'm glad you liked this!

It's so hard to see one.

Anyway, I can't really choose between this or Erin Brockovich as the Best Picture of 2000.