Raphael Pour-Hashemi has reviewed the Region 2 release of Chocolat.
An under-rated piece of charming sentiment from Miramax studios with an all star cast and a good DVD package.
Come Oscar time, Chocolat, based on the Joanne Harris novel, was the most underrated and unappreciated of the five Best Picture nominations (the others were Gladiator, Traffic, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Erin Brockevich). It didn’t win any of its nominated categories, and many cynics cited good marketing on Miramax’s behalf rather than good filmmaking as the reason why it garnered so many accolades. Director Lasse Hallström was nominated the previous year for the equally whimsical Cider House Rules, and Chocolat was regarded as more of the same from both Hallström and Miramax (who have managed to carve out their own audience by making films like The English Patient, Little Voice and Shakespeare In Love).
Set in the late fifties/early sixties in a sedate and old-fashioned French Town, Chocolat tells of two drifters, one a young mystical woman named Vivian (Juliette Binoche) and the other her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) and how their arrival on the French town causes inadvertent social havoc. Vivian’s aim is to start a chocolate shop in the town, and her atheist views cause her to not realise that the town is currently undergoing Lent. Vivian’s shop is met with huge criticism from the town’s control freak of a mayor Le Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who is scornful of both Vivian not being a churchgoer and her encouraging the townsfolk to give in to temptation and eat her chocolates during this heavy religious period. Vivian, however, is not to be deterred, and with friendly/aggressive marketing and mystical ingredients of her chocolates she manages to attract some friends and customers to her shop. These include the wickedly stubborn Armande Voizin (Dame Judi Dench), who delights in rebelling against society and her family by visiting Vivian’s shop; Josephine (Lena Olin), who uses the shop as a safe-haven from her brutishly ignorant and misogynist husband Serge (Peter Stormare); and river rat Roux (Johnny Depp in a nice cameo), who is attracted to Vivian due to her open-mindedness towards him. However, some people in the town desire the immediate departure of Vivian and her shop and will strive to achieve that, despite their chocolate temptations becoming hard to resist.
Chocolat is a typical Miramax film – It’s pleasant, lavishly golden in appearance, and well-made, although you get the feeling that the director Lasse Hallström is almost too nice to direct the film. Hallström’s directed the film with such a soft touch that he lets the material off with murder, and you have to argue that a more cynical approach to the film would have rendered it more worthwhile. It’s easy to see why many people were reluctant to see Chocolat; the plot is hardly exciting on paper and the marketing of the film certainly gives a slushy, overtly-romantic feel to the film. However, watching Chocolat in reality is a far better experience than it promises.
The film is, despite taking an easy ride through the plot, richly warm in sentiment and delightfully charming. The all-star international cast all fit into their roles splendidly, and Juliette Binoche in particular is both stunning and attractively normal, and her performance of Vivian is the key to the film. Binoche manages to convey deep emotion through her facial expression without over-acting, and she is one of cinema’s greatest actresses currently working. The production elements of the film give the film a quaint, low colour look whilst simultaneously maintaining a vivid, fantastical quality to the world of Chocolat. The town sort of looks like a magical Stella Artois advert, and is very beautiful in a nondescript way.
In short, Chocolat is one of those films where in most cases it won’t make someone’s top five hundred film lists, but in other people’s cases it will be regarded as their number one favourite. It certainly has a high feel-good factor, and predictably its female fans will traditionally outweigh its male fans. Most people will see it as the least important of 2000’s major releases, but those who do give the film a chance will delight in a very charming tale. The moral of the film is to release yourself through harmless self-indulgence, and Chocolat is certainly one of those guilty pleasures.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film has a general pleasing overall look but is very soft and lacks definition. Colours and detail aren’t striking enough and although the transfer is very good it lacks a certain something. Maybe this is being a bit harsh, considering Buena Vista/Miramax’s transfers have certainly improved over earlier releases.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the soundtrack is very acceptable and perfectly clear on an audible level. Chocolat isn’t one of those films in which a full surround mix benefits the film, and a 2.0 track would have sufficed, but even so the soundtrack mix is as good as it can be given the circumstances.
Menu: A nice menu, starting off with a zooming in from long shot of the town and ending up in a swirling bowl of melted chocolate, complete with lashings of musical score on the soundtrack.
Packaging: The usual formulaic Miramax packaging – Amaray casing, big Academy Award advert and headshots of the starring characters as the cover. Hardly inspiring stuff, but does come with a twelve page booklet/chapter inlay mentioning some elements of the production and a 50p off voucher for Green and Black’s chocolate!
The Making Of Chocolat: Even though this featurette is of the promotional rather than revisionist nature, the making of is quite interesting and extensive and lasts for twenty eight minutes. It features interviews from the major cast and crew and the obligatory film clips, complete with the husky voice-over narrator man. Some anecdotes revealed are Juliette Binoche moving in with author Joanne Harris in preparation for her Vivian role, and the film actually being shot mostly in the westcountry of England!
Commentary with Lasse Hallström, David Brown, Kit Golden, Leslie Holleran: This is a screen specific commentary, although it appears that Hallström and Holleran recorded their commentary together, and Brown and Golden recorded theirs together but separately from the first pair. The two commentaries have been edited together smoothly as opposed to being presented on two different tracks. Hallström and Holleran take over proceedings more than Brown and Golden, but because there are four contributors proceedings are never boring and many production details are revealed, such as how all of the snow was fake, in pure Zhivago style.
Deleted Scenes: Seven deleted scenes are included, and most of these are very brief trims from the film lasting under a minute, although there is a funny scene involving Le Comte sneakily attempting to break Lent and steal some of his cat’s food.
The Costumes Of Chocolat: A short, four minute featurette hosted by Renee Erlich Kalfus, costume designer for the film, who mentions some of the factors involved in designing the characters costumes, and how costume design can play an integral part in establishing character traits. This is fascinating as it is concise and to the point.
The Production Design Of Chocolat: An eight minute featurette, focusing on how production designer of Chocolat David Gropman went about choosing locations for the film and the reasons why he chose them. Just like the costume featurette, this is interesting because it doesn’t outstay its welcome and stays to the point.
Chocolat is a very pleasant film and has been given good technical qualities and extras. It’s one to rent first if you haven’t seen it, but if you want to buy it, then this package is an excellent one.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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