Say what you want about Miramax, they have been a competitor for the checkered flag of movies consistently for the last few years. They maybe havenít won the race each time, but the company has certainly had films represented. Last yearís Academy Awards were no exception, their thoroughbred being "Chocolat", the story of a woman whose talents for making sweets is equaled only by her ability to bring an entire town together.
"Chocolat" tells the story of Vianne (the lovely Juliette Binoche), who blows into a tiny French town with her daughter Annouk (Victoire Thivisol), riding the wind as her guide to a vacant shop and apartment, owned by the elderly and skeptic Armande (Judi Dench). At the same time these drifters are getting settled, the rest of the town is in Catholic Mass, clearly the event by which the entire town is judged by. Headed by a young and inexperienced priest (Hugh OíConor), the church (and thus the town) is itself judged by the iron hand of town mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). With the season of Lent upon them, the Comte is working extra hard at ensuring his citizenís lead as perfectly puritanical lives as his own. But thereís a small catch: the Comte ainít perfect. In fact itís widely known among the town that his wife has been on "vacation" for an awfully long time.
Of course, nothing threatens a man of ethics like an independent single mother about to open a chocolaterie (candy store) right down the street from his church during the season of abstinence. To make matters worse, Vianne not only is opening a store near the church, but wonít be joining the church anytime soon. Needless to say, she quickly becomes the Comteís public enemy number un. Slowly but surely, however, some of the townsfolk take an interest in this new store, their new neighbor, and her uniquely delicious treats. The first to do so is Armande, who despite being a bit cantankerous, has a weakness for hot cocoa and a desire to see the grandson her overprotective daughter (Carrie Ann Moss) keeps from him. The next is Josephine (Lena Olin), a faithful wife and church-goer who tires of being beaten by her husband (Peter Stormare) and up and leaves him to stay with Vianne and Annouk and work in the store. The final straw for the Comte though, is when Vianne takes a liking and is more than receptive to Roux (Johnny Depp), one of a troupe of gypsyís who have docked their river rafts on the shore banks of the tiny town. While their relationship is budding, both struggle to deal with their nomadic histories, knowing that getting too attached to anything will only bring them pain.
"Chocolat" is a nice movie. Not unlike director Lasse Halmstromís previous Oscar baby "The Cider House Rules," thereís nothing really bad about the movie, thereís just nothing that really sucks you in and keeps you emotionally attached. Does that mean it deserved its Best Picture nomination? Well, in my humble opinion, no it didnít. Regardless of the other films last year that perhaps were snubbed because of it, "Chocolat" pales in comparison to Hallstromís own films "Whatís Eating Gilbert Grape?" or "My Life as a Dog." Knowing he is capable of helming as terrific a picture as those too, it was easy to be disappointed with this one. There is no argument, however, that Juliette Binoche is terrific as Vianne. Possessing obvious talent, she also has the remarkable ability to radiate life on screen. Her role doesnít have a tremendous amount of depth to it, yet she just makes it something almost angelic. Itís as if sheís too good of a person (even with her apparent faults!) to be considered a human. Not to be outdone, the supporting cast is particularly strong, with very good performances across the board.
Buena Vista brings "Chocolat" to DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks very solid. While this isnít my favorite film of Hallstromís, I think itís probably his best-looking. Though itís a little soft overall, the transfer displays some very strong colors on a few occasions. Most notably is the entrance of Vianne and her daughter with those cloaks, but also the party on Rouxís boat. Thereís some really nice use of light in this scene. As expected with such a recent film, the print itself appears nearly flawless with no rips or tears or imperfections. Youíll notice edge artifacts every now and then, but likely not enough to disappoint. A good transfer.
Matching the fine video presentation, Buena Vista has supplied an equally satisfying Dolby Digital 5.1 channel track. Of course, you can tell by looking at the box art for this one that youíre not in for a sound effects-palooza, but the excellent (and Oscar nominated) score by Rachel Portman sounds really good spread out through your speakers. Along with it, dialogue is clean and crisp, though you might have a hard time deciphering some of the French jargon thrown in for fun. The low end is quite nice for a film of this type, even if it isnít used regularly.
Though "Chocolat" wasnít seen by a whole lot of people, the studio has nonetheless seen fit to include a healthy dose of goodies on the DVD. First up is running commentary with director Hallstrom and producers David Brown, Kit Golden, and Leslie Hoffman. It shouldnít come as a surprise, considering the film, that these speakers arenít bouncing off the wall cracking jokes and instead come across about as nice as the movie itself. Itís almost like weíre invited to share a cup of coffee with these kind folks, and get to hear some interesting stories at the same time. Also of note are three different featurettes, which all told run about forty-five minutes. The first and probably the best is called "the Pleasures of Chocolat" which is dominated by cast and crew interviews. It also features some nice on-set footage and an interesting bit of background on producer David Brown, and even the scientific effects of chocolate on the human mind and body. The next short is entitled "The Costumes of Chocolat" and aside from being very short, is more or less a glimpse at some of the period clothes. Finally, we have a Production Design Featurette which highlights the little French town and how it was constructed, adapted, and filmed. Next on board, are seven deleted scenes, which add little to the story but are fun to flip through. Last but not least, we have a little feature called "Sneak Peeks" which amounts to no less than nine different theatrical trailers, including "Bounce", "Malena", "Il Postino", and "Like Water for Chocolate." Oddly enough, none of these nine is for "Chocolat" itself! But all in all, this is a nice presentation for fans of the film and those just looking for a solid rental.
"Chocolat" isnít a perfect film and while it may be hard to fall in love with, itís even harder to hate the thing. Supported by a strong ensemble cast, often gorgeous photography, and a delicate score, I doubt this story could have been told any better. The DVD, with an excellent collection of video, audio, and extras, makes it easy to recommend.