Chocolat (2000) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Chocolat (2000) is the last of last year's Best Picture nominees to come to DVD. I had not seen it in the theater, so was anxious to screen it. It is a charming story of a woman (Juliet Binoche) who comes with her daughter to a small French town, and has the audacity not only to not go to the Catholic Church, but to open a chocolate shop during Lent. This makes he many enemies, most especially the Count who runs the town and its morals. There is something special about her chocolates, though. With a combination of knowledge of Mayan herbal cures using chocolate and a few other ingredients, and an intuitive understanding of people, she is able to suggest their favorite chocolate treat, and one that will help them solve their problems. Of course she supplements the herbs' effectiveness by being a good listener.
  • I was fine with the story, even though it would probably appeal more to women. (Scoop's note: 8.1 with women at IMDb, 7.5 with men. Like Tuna, I expected a greater disparity.)
  • The photography and art direction were superb.
  • Johnny Depp proved once again that he can do something with any role. 
  • My only problem with this film was the pace -- it was very slow, and didn't have to be. 

NUDITY REPORT

Christianne Gadd had very brief and dark breast exposure in a flashback scene as Juliet's mother, a Mayan herbalist.  

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • Making-of featurette

  • deleted scenes

Now that I have seen all of last years nominees, here is my personal re-ranking of the best picture nominees:

1) Erin Brockovich
2) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
3) Chocolat
4) Traffic
5) Gladiator

I still think Almost Famous was better than any of them. 

(Scoop's note: Junior and I also agree with the point about Almost Famous)
 

Scoop's comments in yellow:

Chocolat is one of the all time darkhorses as a Best Picture nominee. Although it is a slickly professional package, I find it difficult to believe that there were not many, many other pictures that would have been more worthy nominees. See our comments on Erin Brockovich for an overview of the Year 2000 Oscar race.

I want to direct my attention to a guess as to why Chocolat was the nominee:

1. Lasse Hallstrom is the liberal darling of the Hollywood liberal establishment. Chocolat is the second extreme darkhorse nominee in two years. In both cases, the nominee was a Miramax picture directed by Hallstrom. The other, The Cider House Rules, presented a solid overview of the compassionate liberal viewpoint on abortion. Chocolat presented the liberal case on religious freedom, and stuck it to the religious right, albeit in the form of an allegory. It seems to reach out and tell those of the Christian religious right to loosen their tight scrotums and accept that they are often less humanistic than people of other religions, or atheists, or freethinkers. It portrays the church as a mere puppet to secular interests, as organized religions have often been in the past. 

The point is not so bad. Throughout history, those in power from the middle ages through Stalin have used the churches to help support and justify their own policies. Don't forget that the Church's role in the time of feudalism was to convince the poor that remaining poor was inherently noble, and that poverty represented their gateway to heaven. The rich wanted the poor to be convinced that they should accept poverty rather than seek a piece of the pie, and the Church was all too eager to support that message. For centuries, the privileged were even able to preach that their privileges were the result of Divine Right. I suspect they had a different philosophy when the French started granting the aristocrats the Divine Right to the guillotine. I'm guessing that they didn't think that was part of God's plan for them.

The church's historical subservience to the titled class was less important to Liberal Hollywood than the film's simple contemporary statements to the traditional religious right: "You have no monopoly on moral truth. You Christians are not better people than Jews, Athiests, Buddhists, Moslems, hedonists, or many others different from yourselves. The homeless people on the streets often have greater moral purity than the well-dressed churchgoers. Your beliefs are not inherently better than the beliefs of those outside your group."  It is a set of simple truisms, but stating it forcefully seems to have been a needed catharsis for Hollywood.

2. Miramax seems to have established a great success rate in lobbying nominations for its products. They have been able to lobby successfully for both their natural children as well as their adoptive ones (For example, the obscure Vatel, seen by almost nobody, also got a nomination)

 

Do these arguments suggest that Chocolat is a bad movie? I don't mean to do that. Although Chocolat is essentially a cartoon performed with live actors, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It admits that it is a fairy tale.

I do think, however, that there is a similarity between the chocolate biz and the movie biz. In both cases, there is such a thing as too much sweetness. A single piece of chocolate-covered raspberry cream can seem satisfying and gratifying, but eating an entire boxful can make one very sick, and perhaps turn one permanently from sweet treats. 

To my taste, watching Chocolat is more like eating a box of chocolates than savoring one sweet, delectable piece. It has too many cases where the protagonists are proven right at the expense of the other point of view, too many cases where it proves itself to be a fairy tale about life in another dimension rather than a story based on the lives of humans on this planet. 

Did you ever see the homeless river rats do anything untoward? No. They formed the perfect romanticized Hollywood version of the misunderstood homeless - possessing spiritual purity, inherent gentleness, perfect teeth, and a complete lack of criminal impulses. The townspeople didn't fear them for any real reasons, but simply because they were different. In the real world, people in Eastern Europe have far grittier reasons to fear gypsies, for example. Those reasons may be true or false or purely imaginary, but they are based on more concrete issues than "they're different". The reasons usually go more along the lines of, "a bunch of them got drunk one night and burned down the town hall", or "they came through town last year, spread sexual diseases, and stole everything that wasn't nailed down". Those prejudices, like most prejudices, are usually based on blaming an entire group of people for a very few actions of a very few people, all which may have occurred in the distant past, or may not have occurred at all. But it seems real. That kind of prejudice we can all recognize as real. On the other hand, the Chocolat villagers' "just because they're different" position is something which romanticizes, whitewashes, and distorts the reasons for prejudice, making all the river-rats into soulful innocents, and all the townspeople into narrow-minded fools. It creates a black and white world, despite the fact that we all live in a multi-shaded gray one.

There was a really, really bad Liberace movie back in the 50's, called "Sincerely Yours". In that movie, Liberace was a rich guy who watched people in Central Park from his Penthouse apartment, then took actions to orchestrate their lives to make them happier. He might see a grandma estranged from her grandson, and use his money to arrange somehow to create a situation in which they could be reconciled despite the ostensible objections of the mother. Sound familiar? Of course Juliette Binoche is not Liberace, and Chocolat is not a sappy, really bad 50's movie.

... but it treads dangerously close to that territory.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2/4, Apollo 80/100

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 65% positive overall, 67% from the top critics. Good, but not a typical "best picture" profile

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.5, Apollo users a very impressive 63/100. 
  • With their dollars ... it was a minor Christmastime hit. $71 million in the USA, and 7 million in the UK. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics - or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Tuna says C+. "It is a good looking film, with some interesting characters, but is very slow". Scoopy also says C+ - "a solid, slick niche film made for a liberal, feel-good target market, but too simplistic and sappy to have merited a Best Picture nod"

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