directed by Lasse Hallstrom
(Miramax, 2000)

Chocolat is a wonderful little film that has much to say about people, as individuals and as groups. With its exotic yet familiar feel, beguiling music and focus on truly human characters, the movie stands as an oasis in the middle of the desert we call life.

Don't get the idea that this film is boring just because it doesn't feature a lot of action, as there is a great deal going on in the lives of these characters. They are all at a collective crossroads, only it's not really a crossroads because the only real options are to go forward or backward.

The setting is a quaint French village that stands starkly on tradition; new people with new ideas just aren't welcome there at all. The best way that I can think to describe the social setting is to say that these are French people being French. There's one self-righteous, powerful know-it-all at the top who tells everyone what to do and how to do it, and all of the villagers are too cowardly to rock the boat or think for themselves. Living in the past is a miserable way to live. You've got an elderly woman still mourning her husband's death 42 years after the fact, a younger widow who won't let her son do anything because she's afraid something will happen to him, a wife who won't leave her abusive husband, etc. Everyone is so worried about what others might think of them that they don't really live. The mayor is so puritanically dominant that he even writes the sermons for the young village priest.

Things start to change when a stranger and her daughter show up (wearing red cloaks, no less) and open a chocolate shop. There's a bewitching quality to Vianne (Juliette Binoche), as she seems to know the right kind of chocolate for each person who enters her shop, and there really is some kind of unquantifiable power in her delicious concoctions. With it, she melts the hardened heart of a grumbling old woman (played magnificently by Judi Dench), puts the romance back into a passionless marriage and even helps give an abused wife the strength to leave her worthless husband. The mayor and most of the townspeople are not at all happy -- and then things get even worse, as a band of "river rats" settles on the local riverbanks. The whole town just says no to "immorality" and refuses to serve or have anything to do with the "dangerous" riff-raff -- but Vianne does. She hits it off particularly well with a guitar-playing nomad named Roux (Johnny Depp).

Naturally, all of this internal conflict going on inside everyone eventually comes to a climax -- and it is here, in particular, that we see both the good and bad side of humanity. There are some really poignant moments as the film draws near to a conclusion, and in the end you're left with something tangible, a renewed spirit. Maybe it's just for a few moments, but you stop and think about the truly important things in life. That's what makes this beguiling little film so special.

by Daniel Jolley
8 April 2006

Buy it from