Among the list of Best Picture nominees, we have such well known films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Gladiator, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Chocolat. Hold on a minute... Chocolat?
How could a subtle comedy about an atheistic chocolate shop owner who falls in love with a gypsy man in a small, conservative French town make the list of the most prestigious award? Well, the only way I see it is that there just were not that many great films to fill the void above it.
This is not to say that Chocolat is a bad movie; it isn't, but at the same time it is not a spectacular movie worthy of spectacular claim. It is quite a good movie, but it is also a little subtle and a little slow in parts.
We start off with a rather funny introduction, where the narrator is telling us about the conservative nature of these people. We see the townspeople in church, where they are supposed to be well behaved, but secretly we see a man dozing off, a kid drawing death on a tablet of paper, and a woman pick pocketing from the man in front of her. It is obvious that these people put up with what they are supposed to do, but don't like it. Then we see a woman and a young girl climbing a steep street, engulfed in a furious wind but cloaked in a bright red, a passionate opposite from the surrounding town.
The woman, played by Juliette Binoche, rents an empty store from an old woman who refuses to attend church. She is played by Judi Dench. Within a week's time the shop has opened, right during the week of lent, and the mayor already knows that her chocolate shop isn't going to belong in his town. He vows to have her gone by Easter.
Chocolat has pretty good acting, although I would not say this film is based on acting. Judi Dench deserves her Oscar nomination (she also won for Best Supporting Actress as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love), but her role isn't extraordinary enough to earn her the gold. As for Juliette Binoche, she does an excellent job, but nothing that really garners a Best Actress nomination. She works well for her character, but sometimes she seems a little too tolerant, and she smiles almost every time someone gets angry at her. Even if the townspeople have hidden feelings, they seem like they would be the more tolerant type, not her. Her character only really sparks in a few occasions, such as when she erupts at the mayor, and another time when a boat catches on fire. It isn't Juliette Binoche as much as it is her scripted character, perhaps, but either way, what amounts on screen just isn't that momentous. My favorite character in the film was the mayor (Alfred Molina), by far. Though he's the villain of the film, he's also incredibly funny.
As a movie itself, Chocolat ties together a lot of different aspects. At heart it is a comedy, but it also blends wife-beating, religious toleration, and other more serious themes. The movie is funny, but sometimes I wonder if this film would have been better if it was a serious film, with comical themes built in. There are a lot of places to laugh at, but there are also a lot of places not to laugh at, and it seems as though Chocolat hasn't really made up its mind on what it wants to be. The movie is funny the whole way through and it is a comedy, but it definitely isn't the funniest thing I've seen in a long time (like As Good As it Gets was, which won itself a lot of nominations).
Chocolat is cute, funny, and dramatic, but never so prominently so that it should win an Oscar nomination. This is a film that the whole family can see, and should see, because it is a really good movie.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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