Chocolat (2000) – Lasse Hallstrom (Dir.), Juliet Binoche, Alfred Molina, Judy Dench, Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss
Alright guys, here’e the fucking deal. I’m in a bad mood. I’m not going to tell you why, but I am. I’m really frustrated and angry and I can’t remember a fucking password for a tumblr blog and this dude sitting across from me KEEPS HITTING MY FOOT AND NEVER APOLOGIZES.
If I could write this article in all caps, I would. But that wouldn’t allow for nuance and I FUCKING LOVE NUANCE. Now, before we get into this, people, I need you to know a few things. I write books. I’m working on a book. At least I have been for the last year…and it’s THIS CLOSE to being done. Can I work on it? Well, every time I sit down, with even a modest modicum of time at my hands, perhaps enough to get my fickle and distracted mind into the creative flow required to put something at least mildly cogent on the electronic page, I ask the universe, “Please, sir, can I write some more?” And the universe looks at me and says, “NO, YOU LITTLE TURD.” And this makes me mad. Like furious. More furious than Fast 9 Furiouserserserser 9. Like, I want to burn this city to the ground and dance on its corpse in the fashion of a demented Betty the Cow or Bessy or WHATEVER I’M TOO ANGRY TO GOOGLE RIGHT NOW.
What am I going to do? I’m going to write about fucking chocolate. That’s right! The brown stuff. That sugary sliver of heaven we dump into our slack jaws with fistfulls of cocoa. I fucking love the stuff. When I’m in a bad mood, just pull out the goddamn Snow Cap AR15 and semi-automatic that sweet shit right through my stomach lining. It doesn’t even need to pass my mouth. Just hook me up to an IV of Cadbury’s and this murderous rage will transform me into tranquilized kitten. GIMME GIMME GIMME CHOCOLATE!
*Six bars of Dark Chocolate later…*
Phew. Let’s all take a step back. Now, I know some things were said. Let’s not point fingers with ‘you said this’ and ‘you swore about this’ and ‘you threatened to burn down a major metropolitan area’. That’s all in the past. Let’s talk about the future. Better yet, let’s talk about chocolate. Oh that glorious divine barrage of calories and seratonin. I would look up whether or not eating chocolate even encourages the body to release seratonin…or whether or not that’s the correct way to spell the word ‘seratonin’. But I’m really tired. Because of chocolate. Did you know, in France, chocolate is called ‘Chocolat’? It’s true. Because they’re too good for silent e’s and hard t’s. They don’t have any issues with slews of silent consonants like, you know, s’s added for pluralization. But, I mean, they are French, so whadda ya gonna do? The correct answer is: get into a 100 year war with them, lose to a prepubescent crazy girl, let her get burned at the stake, then bide your time until a dude called Napoleon comes along, and then have the Duke of Rainboots spank him into submission at a London Underground station. That sounds about right.
Well, this movie, Chocolate without the E, has been sitting on my DVD rack since my ladyfriend moved in about a year ago. Ever since then, it has been a battle of attrition, a siege of epic emotional stakes, a Stalingrad of stubbornness, if you will, to get me to watch this movie. Every time I say, “Let’s watch a movie!” she would say, “Chocolat!” and I would say, “No!” Why? Did I not think I would enjoy this, a multiple Oscar-nominee, this sweet-filled modern French fairy tale, this Judi Dench curmudgeon-a-thon? No. I’m just stubborn. I am the grandest pain in the ass ever since King Edward II succumbed to the awkward end of a hot poker (true story). I don’t care if it’s the holy grail of holy grails (the mythical Holy “Holy Grail” Grail that makes an awkward debut in Indiana Jones 5). If you suggest it excitedly and willingly, my British genes flare, like a pair of 1970s hip huggers, and I am consumed by antagonistic malaise. Well, finally, I don’t know how…but Amelia managed to convince me to finally watch this movie. And I tell ya…it was pretty darn good. So…I’m an asshole. Moving on!
Chocolat tells the tale of the lovely and delicious Juliet Binoche traveling to a tiny French town in the mid 1950s…though it’s difficult to discern any chronological definition in the span from 1750 to 1950 when a movie is filmed in Europe because, well, everything is old. She and her adorably insane daughter (she has an imaginary pet kangaroo) set up shop (literally) in the center of town. Here’s the twist: it’s a chocolate shop in, wait for it…LENT! (Ladies swoon. Gentlemen vomit. Children defecate – though, I’m pretty sure that’s because children just do that). Alfred “Mole” Molina, the mayor and close-minded patriarch of the town, enjoys keeping the plebs under his religiously inclined thumb, though he has obvious issues at home and doesn’t quite have a handle on the Anton Yelchin look-alike new priest. Binoche goes about doing business, handing out candies to all the townsfolk, predicting their favorite taste by way of a mystical pseudo-psychological device. The people are almost instantly entranced, including the secretly diabetic and seriously badass Judi Dench (before the Dame, bitches). Binoche hands out candy like it’s, well, candy, some of her earliest disciples a couple who manage to rekindle their sex lives by way of cacao beans. Because that’s what the French need. More sex.
The movie sets itself up as a fairy tale, the mystical interloper finding her way into a small town community and then upending it from the inside out. There is little newness to the premise, its plot reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pleasantville etc. etc. It opens with ‘Once Upon a Time…’ and relies heavily on some insanely under-budgeted CGI wind effects before Binoche arrives on the scene and starts her sexualized treat revolution during the dog days of the Catholic period of “Remember that Jesus walked through a fucking desert, so lets lay off very specific items of food…because obviously Jesus wants us to suffer like he did. But not EXACTLY like he did. Just a little bit.” Anyhoo, Binoche will have none of it and turns her chocolaterie into the ground zero of the War on Lent, handing out hot chocolate to anyone lucky enough to stop by. Throughout the film, she helps Judi “Breakfast of Nails” Dench reconnect with her morbidly-inclined yet intensely talented grandson; she saves a battered kleptomaniac from that one dude who murders everyone in every Coen Brother’s movie ever (he will cut off your yon-son); and she helps two old Frenchies bang like a screen door in a hurricane.
Thematically, everything about the tale is fairly by-the-numbers. It even employs a cleverly adapted ‘magical negro’ trope, though masks it so well you might not even notice. Quick background: “Magical Negro” is not me being horrifically racist, but rather it’s a termed coined by maddeningly inconsistent director Spike Lee to describe every role Morgan Freeman has ever played. You know, the black guy who is outside all this crazy white people crap and somehow can explain the essence of all existence to those protagonists who need to know. Here, instead of being black or Native American, as most ‘Magical Negroes’ tend to be, the lovely Miss Binoche is apparently, if her story is true, descended from a French gentleman and a woman ‘from Central America’ or, as we call them over here, ‘Mexicans’. It is by way of this tribal link, and the chocolate recipes derived from her lineage, that she is able to mystically entrance the god-fearing townies. It’s funny because, if this were in the US, she’d have to be from Peru, or Chile, or even Asia. I suppose a half-Mexican woman is a wonder in Europe. If she’d waltzed into Birmingham, AL with a Fist-Full of Non-Pareils (the least well-known of the Clint Eastwood westerns) instead of patronage, they would have handed her a shovel and told her to start landscaping. The tale Binoche tells is that of a wandering woman who must go with the northern wind, never remaining in one place for long. She brings with her treats in order to spread the wealth, but she is doomed to a life of a nomad. I spent a good deal of the first half of this movie dreading that it would be nothing more than a sappy “Sexual Awakening in a Sleepy Town” tale, perhaps sprinting down the delightful, yet sometimes bemusing path of Pleasantville a few years before. Binoche seems like nothing more than a manic pixie dream girl, impervious to the drama she swirls into a torrent, always offering a treat to calm the nerves and managing to save everyone from themselves. It makes a healthy change that a good deal of her gambits aim to save women from an overbearing patriarchy, all symbolized by a very not-Spiderman Alfred Molina, but the structure is hackneyed, to say the least.
The movie, however, takes a random and refreshing turn. Out of fucking nowhere, Captain Jack Sparrow’s great great great grandson (Johnny “I Bet He Smells Terrible But I Don’t Care I Still Wanna Lick Him” Depp) materializes on a boat of Irish gypsies. This is the sort of side plot that emerges from the aether and returns with little impact whatsoever. Usually this is the shoe-horned love story, forced in there because, fuck it, can’t call it a love story if Binoche don’t get no action. But something subtler occurs. With Depp’s arrival and shockingly convincing Irish accent (he sounds drunk…but that isn’t unrealistic), the emotional life of the tale moves from Binoche fixing the lives of others to finally buckling under the pressure of not taking care of her own. We get to see the vulnerability coursing under the magical veneer she has constructed for herself. And so, piece by piece, as the movie rolls to its sad and fulfilling conclusion, the layers of mysticism are pulled back for what they actually are. There is no magic to her chocolate. It’s just really fucking good. She is offering these people a sense of pleasure, something they are meant to despise on all fronts, though they beg for it with every primal need. She doesn’t ‘follow the Northern Wind’ because of any ancient curse. She does it because she’s scared of making and fortifying emotional connections. What began as a fairy tale matures and blossoms into the truly enjoyable story of a woman coming to terms with her age, emotional life, love, needs and her own stability. Forcing a crew of gypsies to steamroll through the story is the deftest choice possible, juxtaposing her illusions against the grander mysticism of a traveling band of charming drunken layabouts. Suddenly, the magician is entranced herself, allowing us to see her for what it is. Allowing us to see the magic for what it really is.
It’s loneliness. These people look for the magic because perhaps there’s some undulating hidden energy simmering below the Earth’s crust simply awaiting its turn to sprout and pluck them from their emotional desolation. Ms. Binoche gets caught in throes of impressing the charming Depp, never able to satiate him with her impossible treats, always deterred when he always says, “these are good, but not my favorite”. She eventually sees the magic for what it is after a fire charges through her ecstasy and almost strips her of what she values most. After that, she settles, not into the life of the scared nomad sprinting in the opposite direction of anything resembling commitment, but into a community of love, which, in turn, accepts her. The capstone on this cautionary tale is, after Depp is chased out of town, he eventually returns and joins Ms. Binoche for a simple hot chocolate. No magic. No entrapment. Nothing. Just two people who have realized that all you get from running away is tired. She’s even rewarded when he says, “Hot chocolate, that’s my favorite”. It isn’t some divine truffle or perfect praline, just the basic of all basics. Sometimes, stripping away the magic reveals the best part of the illusion: the truth you’re trying to hide.
Wow. I feel a lot better. I don’t at all want to burn anything down. Well, maybe something French.
Goddamnit. Now I really want s’mores.