After "Chocolat" was nominated for Best Picture, moviegoers were either thrilled or angered, feeling that Miramax's marketing forces had worked their way into another best picture nomination. My opinion comes somewhere inbetween. A film that's generally lovely to look at, the story has been told countless times before in other variations. Yet, with the film's appealing and charming cast, the movie becomes engaging but ultimately rather insubstancial.
The film revolves around Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a lovely French woman who rides a gust of wind into a small village one crisp day. Her daughter joins her, and Vianne plans to open up a Chocolate shop - on Lent, even. This angers the town's mayor Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). Thus sets up the usual battle between those who are rigid in their morality and those who are free-spirits attempting to shake things up a bit.
It's obvious from the begining that Vianne is a sweet-natured, kind woman only trying to be friendly. She's not hurting anyone and the townsfolk against her appear to be cliched villians as a result, especially Molina's character. Yet, Vianne begins to win over the townsfolk with her rich chocolate and ability to listen to their problems - to hear them and let them speak their true feelings, which have been bottled up during their time in the town. The townspeople are not particularly interesting - they all seem to be "types" usually seen in this kind of film, but they at least liven their cliched characters, especially Judi Dench, who is excellent as the older woman who rents the shop to Vianne.
Eventually, Johnny Depp appears as the leader of a band of gypsies, who Vianne accepts when the rest of the town doesn't. The two have a brief affair, but they don't have a great deal of chemistry with one another. How the film will end is not exactly a suprise, edge-of-your-seat event, but I will say that Hallstrom at least moves things along at a respectable pace. Occasionally, the movie goes a little far with its heavy-handed message and sappiness, but the film thankfully didn't reach sickening levels (apparently, some of the actors did get sick though - that's what happens when you have to eat in a scene - you have to eat take after take after take.)
Binoche delivers the movie's finest performance - she seems the most genuine and convincing in her role. This isn't Judi Dench's best performance, but it's amazing what she can do in a smaller role. Also good are Lena Olin and even Depp isn't too bad. Carrie Anne-Moss convinces - as she did in "Memento" - that she can provide a solid dramatic performance.
"Chocolat" is certainly not a particularly original or daring picture, but thanks to its fine cast I found it sufficently entertaining.
VIDEO: "Chocolat" is presented by Buena Vista in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Although generally a fine and enjoyable transfer, it's not one that I regard as one of the best efforts from the studio since their recent upswing into higher quality during the past several months. Sharpness and detail are fairly respectable, as Roger Pratt's cinematography unfortunately keeps things intentionally noticably soft.
Other problems arise, as well. Print flaws appear inconsistently - although not a constant source of irritation, there were a few more marks and speckles overall than I would expect. Slight traces of pixelation also appear, as do a couple of very tiny instances of edge enhancement. Colors looked rich and natural, with no instances of smearing or other flaws. This is a fine presentation and generally enjoyable, but not exceptional or impressive.
SOUND: "Chocolat" boasts a lovely, if subtle Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation. The elegant score by Rachel Portman and Gabriel Yared was a highlight of the audio experience as the filmmakers thankfully allowed it to be opened out into the listening space and come from the surrounds. Many of the other scenes involve simply dialogue - yet, some of the indoor scenes in large, open rooms have a convincing amount of echo. Surrounds aren't used for much else, but there are some occasional nice touches of ambient sounds and a gust of wind in an early sequence that swirls through the room. Dialogue comes through clearly and crisply, sounding natural. A fine presentation.
MENUS:: Elegant main and sub-menus with Rachel Portman's score in the background and animated images of swirling chocolate.
Commentary: This is an audio commentary from director Lasse Hallstrom as well as producers David Brown, Kit Golden and Leslie Holloran. This is a mildly entertaining, if rather low-key track as the four discuss the history of the "Chocolat" production and what it was like to work with the many actors involved. As "Chocolat" was also a novel before it was a movie, there is also some discussion amongst those involved about what it was like to take the story from the page to the screen as well as some of the changes involved. There's some funny moments as well as the group talk about challenges that the production faced during their short shooting schedule as well as some interesting stories from the set. It's a good track and with the four involved, there's only a few minor pauses of silence.
The Making of "Chocolat":: As with most Miramax "making of" documentaries, this starts off as rather heavily promotional - almost an "extended trailer", but then veers into something a little more interesting and informative, although "promotional" elements still occasionally come in. Interviews from the cast and crew about the history of the pre-production and production are engaging - the bits about how wonderful the actors were to work with and story discussion are a bit less so. Overall though, this is a fine documentary that is worth a viewing. There's even a nice segment about famed producer David Brown ("Jaws") in the middle of the documentary, as well as a piece towards the end about the history of Chocolate.
Deleted Scenes: 7 deleted scenes are provided in non-anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 audio. No optional commentary is provided during these sequences, although many of them seemed cut likely because they were unncessary or went over points made elsewhere.
Also Included: A 4 1/2 minute featurette on costume design as well as a 7 1/2 minute featurette on production design. Strangely, no trailers or TV ads are included.
Final Thoughts: Although I'm not sure I'd agree with it's best picture nomination, I found "Chocolat" to be a mildly entertaining offering that had was lifted beyond the material by its cast. The DVD provides good (if not great) picture quality and enjoyable audio quality, along with a fine set of supplements.
The Film ***
Video 87/B = (348/400 possible points)
Audio: 88/B = (352/400 possible points)
Extras: 84/B = (252/300 possible points)
Menus: 85/B = (146/200 possible points)
Value: 84/B = (252/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ***
DVD GRADE: B