As soon as I saw the mother and daughter trudging into the quaint French village wearing matching red cloaks, I knew Chocolat was going to be one of those movies. Whimsical, uplifting, politically correct, resolutely unchallenging, predictable right down to the floor, Chocolat is the sort of warmed-over, food-oriented “magic realism” many otherwise sensible people seem to fall for. It takes the radical stance that people should indulge their pleasures, unless they’re really mean, in which case they should eat some chocolate and learn to be nice.
The matching mother and daughter are Vienne (Juliette Binoche) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), who seem to be ushered into town by a strong wind that apparently tells them when it’s time to move on. (I felt that wind about fifteen minutes into the movie, but managed to resist it.) Many of the locals distrust Vienne and Anouk on sight, perhaps because, in this allegedly French village, Binoche and Thivisol are almost the only people onscreen who are actually French — the cast of colorful French locals includes four Brits, two Swedes, and a Canadian (from British Columbia, mind you). I mean, sheesh, the allegedly American town in Dancer in the Dark where poor David Morse seemed to be the only American around was more credible than this crew, who in any event don’t act any more French than I do.
Vienne and her cutie-pie daughter (who, very unfortunately, has an imaginary kangaroo friend) settle in and open up a chocolaterie. The village mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), reacts as if they had opened a whorehouse. This heavily religious mayor, who frowns on culinary indulgence during Lent, has nothing else to do with his day but go around smearing Vienne’s name. She makes chocolates! And encourages people to eat them! Good Lord, protect us from this concubine of Satan! (Protect us also from writers — Robert Nelson Davis, adapting Joanne Harris’ book — who simplistically equate faith with prudish meanness.)
Of course, Vienne helps a lot of people. She helps her cranky landlady (Judi Dench) to reconcile with her grandson (Aurelien Parent-Koenig), who has an overprotective mother (Carrie-Anne Moss, light-years away from The Matrix). She helps a frazzled, abused woman (Lena Olin) who has the misfortune to be married to the abusive Peter Stormare. The movie uses both Stormare and Olin stupidly; Olin deserves luscious, outsize roles — it’s too depressing to watch her be gentled into this sort of Spitfire Grill character (come to think of it, this entire movie is a fancy-pants version of Spitfire Grill) — and Stormare has been cast as a heavy so often that a change of pace like his compassionate Dancer in the Dark role is a relief.
Johnny Depp turns up midway through the film, as some sort of Irish pirate; he effortlessly makes his scenes more interesting, because you feel that he’s just dropping by — the mediocrity of his surroundings doesn’t stain his clothes much. He, too, plays an outcast, and he comes along at just the right time to catch Vienne’s eye and inflame tensions in the village even more. The mayor keeps grinding his teeth about the moral turpitude of Vienne and her new playmate, and everyone unaccountably listens to him; why they should do so, when there’s no apparent police force in town to back him up, is beyond me and probably the screenwriter too.
Everything leads to a near-tragedy as well as a scene where a character dies peacefully in her sleep (no one seems terribly affected by this, not even her relatives) — of diabetes, yet, which makes the film’s chocolate-as-transcendence metaphor look sort of goofy. And if you’ve seen more than one movie, you know what has to happen with the mayor — he finally tastes the chocolate, which magically cleanses his soul and brightens his attitude, as if he were some Rankin-Bass villain who learns to believe in Frosty the Snowman. There follows an enormous celebration, with the village streets swarming with revellers and fire-breathing, juggling circus acts — not bad for a town that had seemed to have a population of about fifteen before. All of this smug whimsy gets to be too much, I think, for Anouk’s imaginary kangaroo friend, which we see hopping away at the end — perhaps in search of another girl who needs comfort in another threadbare little fable.