Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sweet And Sour

Year: 2000
Director: Lasse Hallström
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: PG-13

If you're a fan of my non-horror reviews, you're lucky I have myself a Sergio. If he wasn't around making me watch whimsical and/or hard-hitting dramas, I certainly wouldn't be watching them on my own, making me quite the one-sided film historian. 

Today's entry in the "movies you're surprised to see on this blog" front is Chocolat, a 2000 quasi-romance film and nominee for that year's Best Picture award. There's no doubt why it lost. Gladiator, that year's winner, certainly appeals more to the Academy's sensibilities than this delicate fable, but it's certainly a light and enjoyable viewing experience.

Perhaps best known for being mentioned and overly pronounced in that scene in I Love You, Man, Chocolat is in fact the kind of movie that Paul Rudd would have secretly enjoyed but felt embarrassed about after the fact. It's tender, heartfelt, faux-French flavor makes it a good snuggle movie. Even if it does evaporate from the tongue soon after it's finished, it's a sweet treat.

Juliette Binoche - pictured 14 years before being devoured by Godzilla.

Chocolat spins the tale of Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), who arrive one day in a picturesque French village to open up a chocolate shop on the first day of Lent. They are met with disparagement and derision from the hyper-religious mayor of the town, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who is perfectly content living life as his forefathers did, rigidly regimented and devoid of temptation or (what he perceives as) sin.

The stick up his ass is enormous, but not quite large enough to reach the entire town, some of whom make fast friends with the warm-hearted Vianne in spite of their leader's protestations. Among their number are Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), the estranged mother of the mayor's secretary, Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin), a mousy woman trapped in an abusive relationship with the local barkeep Serge (Peter Stormare), and Roux (Johnny Depp), a member of a tribe of river dwellers who travel from town to town but meet the scorn of the villagers.

As she befriends the town's outcasts (if this were a Ryan Murphy movie, they'd already be touring the continent singing cover songs), the villagers slowly learn to trust this easygoing visitor. But Serge and Le Comte are prepared to make life very difficult for her and her daughter, intent on preserving the sanctity of their town (and Serge's woebegone marriage).

Hold on, maybe Ryan Murphy DID get his sticky little fingers on this.

Perhaps Chocolat's most striking design element is its use of color. It's unsubtle and hits with the force of the chorus to "Wrecking Ball," but lo and behold is it ever appealing to my tastes. The villagers dress in muted grey and brown tones until one by one their lives are altered by this woman bedecked in red. As her warmth reaches them, their costuming begins to brighten and color enters their lives once more.

It's obvious but effective, and honestly who needs all these films tiptoeing their way around their thematic material, daintily sidestepping their narrative purpose? There's certainly a place for that, especially in the corners of cinema that act as High Art. But I say if you're making a statement, there's no harm in being bold and going for broke, waving your banner high.

In this film, this fable filled with broad characters and timeless themes about indulgence, love, and temptation, a bombastic color scheme can certainly find a home. I'd argue that this American-British co-production could have fared slightly better if it were actually a French film, unafraid to truly push the boundaries. But I admire a work of cinema that - not to mince words - indulges itself.

It's like a rainbow stomped on a Dracula movie.

Chocolat is a bit twee and about twenty minutes too long. And Johnny Depp is oversold in a brief appearance as the least interesting counterpart to Binoche. But the film knows how to wallop and takes on an intriguing, kinetic darkness in some of the more dramatic scenes, especially those between Josephine and her violent hubby.

All in all I enjoyed the experience and for those in the mood for some lighter fare this chilly Halloween season, maybe you should dig through the back catalogs and enjoy some hot Chocolat.

TL;DR: Chocolat is a light fable with bold use of color.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 754

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