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Laramie Movie Scope:
Chocolat (DVD review)

One of the best films of 2000 is out on video

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 12, 2001 -- "Chocolat," one of the best films of 2000, is out on video. The DVD has the usual bells and whistles, but alas, there are no recipes. As its name suggests, "Chocolat" is a movie about that sugary confection that holds a special place in the hearts of the fairer sex, but this is no ordinary chocolate. It has strange, magical powers.

If you are a chocolate lover, you might want to stock up before you start watching this film, or you will suffer from chocolate cravings. It all begins in a quaint French town named Lansquenet, where life is stagnant. One day the sly north wind blows in a couple of visitors, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche of "The English Patient") and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol).

The two set up a chocolaterie in a shop owned by a 70-year-old woman, Armande (Judi Dench of "Shakespeare in Love"). Armande's decision to rent the shop is to the dismay of her estranged daughter Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Anne Moss). Caroline won't let Armande visit her son, Luc Clairmont (Aurelien Parent-Koening), but Vianne finds a way around that restriction. Also drawn to the shop is Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin of "The Ninth Gate"), who wants to leave her brutal husband, Serge, (Peter Stormare of "Armageddon"). Soon, the mayor of the town, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina of "Magnolia"), decides that Vianne is the enemy, and he tries to drive her out of town. Further complicating matters is the arrival of Irish Gypsies, led by Roux (Johnny Depp of "Sleepy Hollow").

The war of wills between Reynaud and Vianne starts because Vianne opens her chocolaterie during lent, a time of religious fasting. Both Reynaud and Vianne are very stubborn when it comes to their convictions. Reynaud wants to restore his kind of order in the town and Vianne wants to operate without interference. A local priest is brought into the conflict, although he would just as soon steer clear of it.

The whole matter is a kind of tempest in a teapot, except there are some serious undertones in the story. Serge beats his wife and there is ethnic hatred of the Gypsies by the townspeople. Vianne becomes a kind of healer and her shop becomes a kind of female commune, offering refuge to those who have suffered because of hatred or intolerance. Her healing arts, handed down from her Central American ancestors, work wonders, but they can't heal her own heart.

Vianne is under a kind of curse. She is never able to put down roots and belong anywhere. She has a wanderlust that arises periodically when the north wind blows. Will she be able to overcome it this time? Who will win the battle between Vianne and Reynaud? There are some delicious ironies in the answers. This is a very lighthearted and enjoyable movie with great acting and a very good original music by Rachel Portman. The cinematography by Roger Pratt is also quite good. Director Lasse Hallström shows the same kind of technical and emotional mastery he demonstrated in last year's "The Cider House Rules." This film rates an A.

The DVD includes several scenes cut from the film. The only one that added anything to my understanding of the film is one which explains why the mayor had so much control over Serge. The commentary track by the director and producers of the film is interesting. One thing it explains is the interesting look of the architecture in the village. Hellström and crew found what they termed "A perfect French village" during location scouting, but rejected it. Hallström wanted a village that was not perfect, but rather plain.

The "no nonsense" look of the village, those solid, unimaginative buildings, not at all typical of French period architecture, is perfect for the film. It is just what you would expect in a repressed, unimaginative village. Another interesting thing about the film is that it is based on a book. One of the complaints about this movie is its allegedly anti-Christian stance. The commentary indicates that the antagonist in the book was the village priest. That was changed to the mayor in the film and the priest is actually a sympathetic character in the film. The reason for the change? Hallström's belief that the character of a heartless, overbearing priest has been done too many times.

What you get, instead of a simple villain, is a complex duo of villains in the mayor (who controls the young, inexperienced priest) and Serge, a brute who gets a lot worse when he's drunk. The mayor is anything but a pure villain. He tries to do the right thing, but he has conflicting goals. The commentary goes on to say that most of the exterior scenes were shot in France and the interiors were shot in England. Some digital effects were used to remove power wires, etc. The memorial at the end of the film is for veteran cameraman Mike Roberts, who died of natural causes during production of the film. His credits include "Rob Roy" "Angela's Ashes," "Empire of the Sun," "The Butcher Boy" and "Notting Hill."

The aspect ratio of the widescreen anamorphic image is 1.85:1. The soundtrack is Dolby (TM) Digital 5.1. Features include a production design featurette (which explains the statue in the square, wooden shutters on the buildings and some storefronts in the square were all built for the film), theatrical trailers, a "making of" featurette, a feature on costume design, and other extras. The DVD rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2001 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)