Combustible Celluloid
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With: Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Judi Dench, Victoire Thivisol, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss, Leslie Caron
Written by: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris
Directed by: Lasse Hallström
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a scene of sensuality and some violence
Running Time: 121
Date: 12/15/2000

Chocolat (2000)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Hollow 'Chocolat'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Chocolat, a woman breezes into town and changes everyone's lives because her cooking is so good. Isn't this the same movie as Woman on Top, but with a more prestigious cast and crew?

Lasse Hallstrom's film takes place in the late 1950's, and everything is squeaky-clean and innocent. The population of a repressed, religious little village living under the ruling hand of major Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) itches for some relief. That's when Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol, from Ponette) arrive to set up a chocolate shop. The townspeople each have their little problems, and all are easily fixed by nibbling a delectable sweet. Lena Olin is abused by her husband (Peter Stormare), Judi Dench's daughter won't speak to her, and a charming old fellow (John Wood) is secretly in love with widow Leslie Caron. A gypsy-ish river traveler (Johnny Depp) also shows up to woo Binoche.

Two different people have recommended Joanne Harris' book to me recently, and I'm sure it's very good. You can almost see the basis for a good story within this movie. But the movie itself is not good. Director Hallstrom does nothing to make it work. Each and every little subplot is effortlessly solved in advance. We know the ultimate fate of each character within minutes of meeting them. There's no suspense or curiosity about anyone. It's like turning on a dishwasher; you can stand there and watch it, but you still know that in a short while everything will be clean.

Hallstrom last delivered the timid and uninspired The Cider House Rules, which was even more annoying because it had a political and social agenda (tailor-made for Oscar nominations). But it was too cowardly to take a real stand on anything. Though Chocolat is a romance, it suffers the same problem. Hallstrom is too lazy to bother inventing any new ways to tell this story; every convention has been used before.

Some of the food scenes are lively, though. It's lovely to watch the chocolates being made and sampled. Food is often neglected in movies, and I always love to see a true appreciation of it. Too bad the people in the film are not equally appreciated. The movie should have had an airy, wispy small town feel like Waking Ned Devine had, but instead it's choppy and lifeless, like a shopping mall or the waiting room of a dentists' office.

Binoche is an extraordinary film presence, with a face for all time. She's been accused of coldness in films like Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue (1993), but here she projects warmth and strength. Her eyes glisten with pride and glee when she watches her customers sample her wares. Seeing Binoche and Olin onscreen together for the first time since their naked photo session in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) just underlined how much this film was actually missing. That movie stretched the boundaries of intimacy between characters. This one barely understands them at all.

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