Chocolat (review)

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I Want Candy

Comfort movies are like comfort food — they’re what you turn to when you don’t want to be challenged, you just want to relax with an old favorite. Comfort movies are populated with old friends, people you love hanging out with again and again, and knowing how their stories turn out leaves you free to enjoy spending time with them. Before I saw Chocolat, I’d never have imagined a comfort movie could be one you’d never seen before — surely, part and parcel of what makes a movie a comfort movie is that you’ve seen it so many times that it has become an familiar companion.
But Chocolat is an instant comfort movie. There isn’t a single event that transpires in the film that you cannot see coming from its opening moment, and yet it’s utterly appealing. And that appeal has a lot to do with how, well, comfortable a film this is. Director Lasse Halström (The Cider House Rules) doesn’t ask you to think too much about anything, but you can still feel sophisticated as well as warm and toasty, because the international cast and crew and Gallic setting will lull you into the sense that you’re consuming a Foreign Film.

Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche: The English Patient), with her young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), in tow, blows into a small French village one windy, wintry afternoon in 1959, intent on opening a chocolate shop. But it’s the Lenten season, which means deprivation for these godfearing townspeople, and nonconformity is frowned upon here. Freespirited and, ahem, atheistic Vianne won’t be thwarted, however, frolicking about the village in her pink and red frocks while everyone else sticks to drab gray, happily sprucing up her new shop with gallons of vivid paint. These little people need their little world rocked, and the chore has fallen to Vianne. Some of the townsfolk are ready to be led into temptation, but the mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina: Magnolia, The Imposters) rules with a gray-flannel fist, and his declarations of her as “shameless” and “brazen” are taken too much to heart. He’s a tough nut to crack, this one, but getting him to loosen up already will be Vianne’s biggest triumph, we have no doubt at all from the moment we meet him.

You know everyone here instantly, but they’re all so charming that you don’t mind spending time with them. There’s Roux, the roguish gypsy (Johnny Depp: Sleepy Hollow, The Astronaut’s Wife, as delicious as chocolate himself), and the local crank Amande Voizin (Judi Dench: Tea With Mussolini, Mrs. Brown) and her death-obsessed grandson, Luc (Aurelien Parent-Koening). There’s elderly Guillaume Bierot (John Wood: The Little Vampire, Longitude), who’s secretly been carrying a torch for widow Madame Audel (Leslie Caron: Gigi, An American In Paris) for years — just apply chocolate to break that ice. Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin: The Ninth Gate, Mystery Men) is the confused women who will — it will not surprise you to learn — be saved by Vianne’s kindness. This is such a nice film that even her abusive husband, Serge (Peter Stormare: Dancer in the Dark, 8MM), gets his pathetic comeuppance in a sweetly satisfying way.

You’ve seen the TV commercial for Chocolat, the one in which the doofus husband gets his libido so awakened by Vianne’s special chili sweets that he gets turned on watching his wife scrub the bathroom tub. It’s that gentle, milk-chocolate naughtiness that’s been filling theaters with teams of old ladies — like the jam-packed matinee I attended — looking to have their best suspicions about life reinforced. And Chocolat complies: Chocolate is good. Love is nice. Sex is fun. Friends are treasures. Who could argue with that? Certainly not Halström, and he spends two hours reassuring us that life is good. More complicated than it has to be, sometimes, but good nevertheless.

“Once upon a time” is how Chocolat actually opens, as an unidentified (until much later) narrator tells this tale of wandering chocolatiers… and Vianne also tells a similar story to Anouk, about the ancient curse that destined Vianne and her mother to travel endlessly, bringing the magic of chocolate to the world. With their red cloaks, Vianne and Anouk are like eternal Red Riding Hoods, but ones who turn at run at the first sign of the big bad wolf… in their case, when the pressure to conform gets too rough. Like Oscar and Lucinda, Chocolat doesn’t ignore the price that nonconformists pay to live as they please, and though Vianne tries to paint a fairy tale picture of their life to Anouk, it’s only a candy coating. Vianne has her own blinders to the world to deal with, whether she wants to or not.

But you knew that already too. You’ve seen Chocolat before you’ve even seen it. But don’t let that stop you — this is some of the happiest food porn ever. Bring chocolate.

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