It melts in your brain, not in your mouth

Chocolat (12) | Lasse Hallström, 121 mins
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A few years ago, a British video distributor ran a campaign to market world cinema as if it were a specialist branch of gourmet cuisine. In its catalogue, Spain was represented by a hot chilli pepper, Italy by a Chianti bottle and so forth; it makes you wonder whether, somewhere in the world, British film is being sold as a bag of soggy chips and a Pot Noodle. Similarly, Lasse Hallström's Chocolat is the screen equivalent of one of those dainty, decorative sweetmeats seen in French patisserie windows - a melt-in-the-mouth gobbet of caramelised nothing.

A few years ago, a British video distributor ran a campaign to market world cinema as if it were a specialist branch of gourmet cuisine. In its catalogue, Spain was represented by a hot chilli pepper, Italy by a Chianti bottle and so forth; it makes you wonder whether, somewhere in the world, British film is being sold as a bag of soggy chips and a Pot Noodle. Similarly, Lasse Hallström's Chocolat is the screen equivalent of one of those dainty, decorative sweetmeats seen in French patisserie windows - a melt-in-the-mouth gobbet of caramelised nothing.

Based on the novel by Joanne Harris, Chocolat is set in a staunchly Catholic small French town, ruled by a morose, reactionary mayor (Alfred Molina). One day, a swirl of snow and aerial photography announces the arrival of a mysterious woman and her daughter, in matching Red Riding Hood outfits. The woman (Juliette Binoche) is an itinerant chocolate-maker named Vianne Rocher - a relative, surely, of the celebrated Monsieur Ferrero? The townspeople are at first outraged that this seemingly godless single mother should open a chocolaterie just when they're all sternly denying themselves for Lent - you have to admit, it's something of an own goal from a PR point of view. Nevertheless, they are soon addicted to Vianne's ever-so-slightly risqué friandises ("Try a nipple of Venus"), which have a strange way of stirring the passions. A middle-aged woman finds her husband suddenly leering hotly over her haunches while she's on all fours scrubbing the grubby porcelain. The magical chocolate liberates the town outcast (Lena Olin) who "waltzes to her own tune"; sparks a third-age romance between John Wood and Leslie Caron; even unfreezes a moody boy who spends his time drawing morbid sketches (thereby nipping in the bud a distinct talent in the Jake and Dinos Chapman mould).

Chocolate and passion: you could think of this as a glorified Flake ad. However, the film's sexuality is terribly tame, little more than coy flirtation plus a dusting of Gallic sauciness. Vianne eventually gets together with Johnny Depp's suave and altogether ludicrous blues-playing Irish Gypsy - but it's apparently no more than a starlit reverie from which they both quickly spring fully clothed.

As for the chocolate theme itself, it's all soft centres and no nasty surprises; at only one point, when a character breaks down and binges, is there a subliminal hint of chocaholism's more scatological connotations. You expect Vianne to reveal a sinister secret ingredient: I rather wondered about her mother's ashes, which she keeps in a Mayan urn. But no, just plain old cocoa and the wisdom of the ancients - all that's needed for a pantheist 'Allo 'Allo.

What makes Chocolat annoying is that the hedonism is so smug. Fine, enjoy chocolate - it'll rot your teeth but for heaven's sake, it won't make you a nobler person. Yet the terms of reference are grindingly banal. Crabby, intolerant people bad; joyous, sensual choccie-gobblers good. When the film touches on anything serious, such as domestic violence, it tidies it away with flip comedy.

For the dissenting critic, it's a no-win situation. Snort at such a harmless fairy tale and you look like the film's Scrooge-ish mayor: what's wrong with a little sweet-toothed gratification? However, Chocolat is a Miramax film, and entirely representative of that company's European product. Miramax tends to favour handsomely mounted feelgood movies that offer sanitised tourist images, films such as Life is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love, and Giuseppe Tornatore's forthcoming Malena. It might seem extreme to say that such films are erasing "real" or "hard-core" foreign-language cinema, but their success arguably contributes to a climate of taste that makes it harder to distribute more abrasive or demanding images of the world.

Ironically, Chocolat is set in 1959, just when the dull, condescending French cinéma de papa this so resembles was being pilloried by the New Wave. Some viewers (in the proverbial Boise, Idaho, let's say) may conceivably think the film is actually French because of Binoche's presence and the title (not to be confused with Chocolat, the tough, lucid 1988 debut by Beau Travail director Claire Denis). The film is the product of an American company, a Swedish director and a French/ American/Swedish/British cast, from a French-set novel by a British writer - movies this cosmopolitan tend to wind up American by default. Really, though, this is cinema from nowhere, set in a world where non-French actors "Bonjour" each other in accents a notch down from Inspector Clouseau, while Juliette Binoche, presumably hired for her authenticity, sounds more mid-Atlantic than anyone ("You're gonna lurrve my chaaclate festival!").

Director Hallström ( My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules) has a well-established rep as an upmarket softie, and if you're partial to kitsch, then his way of sugar-frosting images with wintry light has a certain fey charm. Although some of the acting is questionable (eye-rolling Olin, barking Stormare, Depp on auto-pilot as a romantic ramblin' boy), much of it is far better than the film deserves. Carrie-Anne Moss concisely evokes pinched, buttoned-up passion, with a profile you could slice cheese on. Judi Dench scores points by keeping her village doyenne endearingly grouchy and sardonic throughout. As for Alfred Molina, he walks through his part so confidently - shiny jowls and melancholic bonhomie - that it's finally rather galling to be reminded how consistently the cinema has wasted his talents.

Juliette Binoche, however, gets by on dignity alone. This is not the Binoche of complex intelligence we know from films by Kieslowski or André Téchiné, but the Binoche of the Lancÿme ads and the grit-free costume epics. Glowing and compassionate in perfect scoop-neck dresses, she's a bon-bon herself, the glazed cherry on top of a cloying cake. In her best work she can claim to be an ambassador of French cinema; with this Chocolat, Madame l'Ambassadrice is truly spoiling her CV.

Comments