Based on the novel of the same name by Joanne Harris, Chocolat is a whimsical story that blends together eccentric characters, small-town intrigue, food (namely chocolate), with a healthy dose of fairytale trimmings to create an easily digestible confection.
It’s 1959 in the fictional French village of Lansquenet, a conservative place where life has not changed for at least a century. The opening image is both arresting and magical: a beautiful young woman, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thvisol) are seen walking into town as the wind blows wildly. Both are dressed in red coats, the meaning of which becomes clear later in the film.
Everyone welcomes the young woman and her daughter, until it becomes common knowledge that they do not attend mass and, worse that Vianne intends to open a chocolate shop during Lent (chocolate, which is associated with decadence, being inappropriate for a time of self-abnegation). The pious mayor of the town, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), and the new priest, Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor), denounce Vianne, but it does little good. Her shop flourishes and she gains a small cadre of supporters, including Jospehine Muscat (Lena Olin), who takes refuge with Vianne when she flees her abusive husband (Peter Stormare), and Amande Voizin (Judi Dench), a cantankerous old woman who owns the shop that Vianne rents. In another case, an old man (John Wood) is inspired to work up the courage and confess to a local widow (Leslie Caron) that he has loved her forever.
Much of Chocolat chronicles the effect Vianne has on Lansqenet and its residents. Since this is a romantic fable, the love interest is provided by another outsider Roux (Johnny Depp) a riverboat traveler who reawakens Vianne’s romantic longings.
Directed by Lasse Hallestrom (The Cider House Rules, My Life as a Dog) Chocolat is the kind of film you can just enjoy despite its religious undertones. The citizens of Lansquenet aren’t bad people, though they resent outsiders like Roux. Like many, they’ve lived such a sheltered life their scared of people with personalities they don’t understand; slowly, their waking up to the larger world outside their little hamlet. Even Reynaud is converted and is shocked when he finds that his reckless language has inspired a local to set a dangerous fire.
Shown in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is alright but not superior. The image has a general softness throughout, and the blacks expose an occasional digital artifact. Colors here are slightly drab throughout, lacking the vibrancy one might like. Skintones do look natural, if not particularly lively. Despite all of this, Chocolat has never looked better than on this Blu-ray release.
Chocolat‘s lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track won’t blow you away, but it gives the film an elegant treatment. Dialogue is clear, and the few effects present are well positioned. The wonderful music by Rachel Portman, clear, well balanced, and makes fine use of the surrounds.
We get the following special features:
- The Making of Chocolat (SD; 28:41) We get some information on what it took to adapt the original source novel to the screen. This featurette offers a lot of interviews with cast and crew.
- The Costumes of Chocolat (SD; 4:20) looks at the simple but elegant costume designs of Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.
- Production Design Featurette (SD; 7:57) does similar service for the film’s location shooting as well as contributions made by Production Designer David Gropman.
- Deleted Scenes (SD; 7:11) features several short snippets, including a couple of interesting extra character beats for Lena Olin’s put upon character and her abusive husband.
- Audio Commentary with Director Lasse Hallstrom and Producers David Brown, Kit Golden and Leslie Holleran is a very interesting commentary with excellent interplay between the participants. A lot of information about the subtext of what might appear to be a fairly thin premise is discussed, and a lot of very interesting information about the film’s adaptation and production is also included.