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Chocolat (Lasse Hallstrom) 2000

Chocolat is awful. Juliette Binoche stars in the film (which gives her next to nothing to do), which is sort of Where the Heart Is... meets The Full Monty. It's a completely offensive liberal fantasy. The basic plot is that a woman comes to a small town in 50's France, and through the power of her chocolate making, changes their outlook on lives. The problem with this is that you need to share its viewpoint, which is that all of the townspeople are stupid & blindly follow their way of life & religion since they don't know any better.

The film treats Catholicism as folly. I'm not Catholic, but I was still offended. It takes place during Lent. Binoche's character tempts all of the characters to break their Lenten vows with her chocolate, and this is seen as a good thing. She doesn't attend church & seems to callously brush aside their views on religion. Basically her character's goal comes at the cost of the town's way of life, and we're expected to applaud that. I just want to warn you that the film, while seemingly sweet, is incredibly subversive in the worst way. It manipulates the audience into accepting the offensive views it has, and then tries to beautify its ugly ideas with mood lighting.

If you watch the film with any sort of rational mind at all, you can't help but be offended. I'm up for magic realism as much as the next person, but this film doesn't work at all. I didn't read the book, but the film is so flimsy. For example, it doesn't explain why the chocolates have the effects they do at all. There's one flashback in which Binoche explains the Indians believed cocoa beans make people lose all their inhibitions. That's well & good, but I don't lose all inhibition when I eat a Hershey's bar. There is obviously something different about HER chocolate and the film does nothing to explain it.

What I had a huge problem with though were its attitudes toward society. It's one of those movies that celebrates vagrants at the expense of people who are settled down in life, but then expects us to be happy when the main vagrants in the story all decide to settle down at the end. I don't mind that the film condemns the church & the town's people so much as that it expects us to be happy when it betrays itself and decides these are good things.

Also problematic is Judi Dench's character. She is presented as a fellow outcast from the town, but she is obviously influenced by what her daughter (the mayor's loyal assistant) thinks of her. The film definitely wants to be subversive & conformist at the same time, and you simply can't. The condescending way it treats the townspeople in and the pedestal it places Binoche & Depp on both are ridiculous. The film is a total failure (though I'm sure people who don't much think about what they're watching are apt to enjoy it.)

*

September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman