This has got Harvey Weinstein’s fingerprints all over it. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, there was a period of time when Miramax/Harvey Weinstein produced a never-ending parade of handsome adaptations of novels, some of them more prestigious than others, with vaguely respectable directors, and a series of talented international actors. Chocolat is a prime example of this type of film-making, both for good and bad.
Chocolat is pleasing enough when it operates at the level of confectionery fable, but falters whenever it strives for something deeper. It preaches a lovely message of tolerance, and gives several actresses ample room to strut their stuff. There’s not a lot to it, and its heavy sentimentality can grate towards the end, especially in a happy ending that just feels forced and hollow. There’s gradation here, we’re told explicitly throughout who is good and bad and where our sympathies must lie.
Any and all enjoyment comes from a trio of performances. There’s Juliette Binoche as our heroine, who may or may not be a witch, a pagan demi-goddess, or merely a pagan priestess, it’s never entirely sure and her character is thinly written. But Binoche brings a tremendous amount of charm, incandescent star power, and serene ease to every scene. It’s no wonder that the small village falls under her powers, she casts a similar spell on the audience. While the movie tries to make its war between Christianity and paganism a source of dramatic tension, the mere presence of Binoche tilts the scales towards the old beliefs at every opportunity.
Supporting her are Judi Dench and Lena Olin, and both turn in very fine work. There’s a consistent problem with the non-French actors giving inconsistent accents, Carrie-Anne Moss is the worst offender while Johnny Depp is bizarrely doing a vaguely British one, but Dench and Olin manage to ground their performances in some truth and deeply felt emotions. Dench as an opinionated and hardened sounds like something she could do in her sleep, but Dench never slouches no matter what the material is. Olin as an eccentric, abused housewife who flowers under the maternal warmth and feminine support of Binoche and Dench. For me, Olin is the true best-in-show when it comes to the supporting players. She hits notes of grief and mania that are impressively wide and watchable. She’s an exposed nerve when others are merely play acting.
Chocolat is perfectly fine, safe and whimsical, designed less for artistry than to try and garner awards. Weinstein’s P.T. Barnum-esque showmanship has heralded many an empty but handsome film to prominence, and this one is no different. At least Chocolat offers a rare glimpse of Leslie Caron, and I do mean rare as she’s barely in it, and three great performances to engage you. It plays like a cheap store-bought holiday candy, you eat one, get a temporary high, and then move on to another and another and another.