This was one of the better-regarded films of 2000. It was nominated for a stack of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Original Music and Best Adapted Screenplay. It's set in a French village in 1959, in which genteel conformity and neighbourly repression are the rule of the day until Binoche arrives to change people's lives with chocolate.
That probably sounds as if it's in danger of becoming the following year's Amelie, but the difference is that it's less whimsical. Amelie's super-cute and a fairy tale to its fingertips. Chocolat is similarly a story of a magical lady coming to help her neighbours become better people, but it feels more connected to the real world. Our heroine faces a struggle to survive in this town, with the churchfolk against her and Alfred Molina wanting to shut down her chocolate shop even before she starts befriending river gypsies. She has her problems. She also has an illegitimate daughter, who she's been dragging around as they drift from town to town and who doesn't seem particularly enamoured of their itinerant existence. This may be a film that's drifting by mostly on charm and human quirks, but it's not weightless.
Oh, and unlike Amelie, it's in English. This bothered me for the first two minutes, then I forgot about it. One advantage of this is that they can play silly buggers with the accents, so you'll have some characters sounding French, others clearly having come straight from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the odd American voice slipping out to join the mix.
There's one crucial thing I only learned by looking it up on the internet afterwards, though. Admittedly it explains some things that puzzled me in what I watched this morning, but I don't think I'd have guessed it by myself. The film's based on a magical realist novel. The original was by Joanne Harris, published only the year before, and I'd love to know how far it was taking the fantasy because on that score the film's downright modest. Admittedly the film's closing moments are a bit whimsical, but by then you hardly notice. No, more distracting for me were a couple of earlier points: Binoche's Rorschach test for her customers' favourite chocolates and the unlikely effectiveness of an aphrodisiac. In a less dreamy narrative, those would be plot holes. Binoche's assessment of the little boy only makes sense on a metaphorical or psychological level as far as I'm concerned, while the love beans are pushing the film's plot workings into realms of magic. Chocolate does admittedly have detectable aphrodisiac effects, yes, but not this literally.
It's a delicate, slightly odd way of handling magic realism. You'll detect its traces if you're looking for them, but ostensibly the film would seem to be pretending not to have any fantasy elements at all. Well, you don't want to scare off the punters.
The acting is everything you'd expect. The film's worth watching just for Judi Dench's physical transformation as Armande Voizin, especially if you're used to seeing her in cut-glass upper-crust roles. You'd never believe she could so completely become a French peasant. Alfred Molina plays the film's villain with such courtesy and humanity that it's embarrassing to be calling him a villain in the first place. Binoche is beautiful, but not in a meretriciously pretty way. Lena Olin is a crystalline butterfly. (For a while I was expecting her to have a lesbian awakening.) Carrie-Ann Moss continues to have a good year. Finally of course there's Johnny Depp, whom I like a lot and he didn't let me down here. He made me laugh with the worm. Ironically none of his scenes were among those shot in France, despite the fact that he lived (and still lives) there. Incidentally I'd been wondering if his real-life partner was Juliette Binoche and if perhaps they'd met while working on this film, but of course I was wrong and he's with Vanessa Paradis.
Thinking about it, I suppose that magical realism might be manifesting itself in metaphor. You've got Binoche as a pagan goddess of temptation, throwing down her gauntlet of tolerance to the local church as she opens a chocolate shop in Lent and then organises a fertility festival on Easter. Molina's Lent observances are almost Puritan, while some of his villagers see chocolate as a matter for the confessional. However alongside all these metaphors, Binoche is also playing a real character with problems. She's used to trouble. Her endless drifting might be a kind of running away. She's clinging to her own self-made traditions and in the process hurting people she loves, just like everyone else. Over the course of the film, she too finds healing.
It's a good film, obviously. Not exactly heavyweight, but sweet. If I had to sum it up in a few words, I'd say it's about the heart.