These days, I'm very wary of the Miramax moniker. It's a shame that the name of a studio can stigmatize rather good movie fare. During the past couple of years, noteworthy films such as "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Cider House Rules" have garnered as much attention for their hard sell by Miramax as for their artistic merits. Those nasty Oscar campaigns have begun to distract attention from rather than to provide support for Miramax's movies.
The year 2000 was a relatively weak year for the studio, and Bob and Harvey Weinstein pinned their Oscar hopes on "Chocolat," directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("Cider House") and starring Juliette Binoche (Supporting Actress Oscar winner for "The English Patient"). What really irked me was that while "Chocolat" is a wonderfully sweet little fable, it certainly is nowhere near a quality consideration for Best Picture. Yet, there went Harvey Weinstein again, bullying everybody into nominating one of his movies for every award in sight. Not only was it annoying, it was also rather disrespectful of better films that happened to lack Miramax's campaign money.
"Chocolat" relates the tale of a mother and daughter pair, Vianne Rocher (Binoche) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol, the immensely talented little girl in "Ponette"). They arrive at a drab little French town dominated by the town mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). This fellow is so preoccupied with the Catholic morality of the town that he even writes the local priest's sermons to insure the proper amount of fire and brimstone to scare the townsfolk.
Vianne opens a chocolaterie, a chocolate shop, that offers its patrons the magical palliatives that they happen to need. Soon, some of the town's inhabitants are enjoying renewed sex drives, romantic courtships, and, in the case of Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin, Binoche's co-star in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"), the courage to leave her abusive husband, Serge (Peter Stormare). There are others who need Vianne's help: Armande Voizin (Judi Dench), an old woman estranged from her daughter and grandson; Caroline Claimont (Carrie-Ann Moss), the estranged daughter who might be interested in dating the repressed mayor; and Roux (Johnny Depp), a Gypsy who needs to find a nice woman like Vianne to complete his life.
Like his "Cider House Rules," Hallstrom's "Chocolat" seems to be fairly ambiguous in treating its subject matter despite taking a firm, final stance by the end of the film. Hallstrom's approach doesn't work as well here as it did in his previous work because "Chocolat" is a much lighter, fluffier film than "Cider House." "Cider House" deals with a young man's struggle to accept the necessity of offering women the choice to have safe abortions, and because of the controversy surrounding abortion, it helped to have the filmmakers not be too insistent with their pro-choice theme. Here, in "Chocolat," it simply doesn't pay for a gentle fable to take its time getting to places where the audience has already anticipated. I mean, for a film about the need for tolerance, none of the characters seem to be suffering anything that a little chocolate couldn't cure. How much more light-spirited could the film be?
Of course, Juliette Binoche, with her timeless beauty and humanity, will win over everyone's hearts. Of course, everyone will no longer be afraid to fulfill their romantic yearnings by the time the credits roll. Of course, little Anouk will grow up to realize that she no longer needs her imaginary kangaroo to comfort her.
The gentleness of "Cider House" has been carried over for this film, and the acting is uniformly warm and spirited. As usual, Juliette Binoche is just magnificent, but I think that it has more to do with how easily she can transcend normal film constraints rather than how "great" the film may be. As well made as it is, "Chocolat" simply recalls too many other movies as well as too many film-related issues. "Like Water for Chocolate", "Babette's Feast," and even the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starrer "Simply Irresistible" have covered the same territory as "Chocolat" with more warmth and humor. Besides, just because it is adapted from a novel does not automatically make "Chocolat" a superior effort due to its literary roots.
Although DreamWorks was founded a mere six years ago, its Oscar battles with Miramax have become the stuff of legend. 1999: "Saving Private Ryan" versus "Shakespeare in Love." 2000: "American Beauty" versus "The Cider House Rules." 2001: "Gladiator" versus "Chocolat." The two studios are headed for yet another collision, this time between two gangster films, if DreamWorks releases "The Road to Perdition" (Tom Hanks, directed by "American Beauty" helmer Sam Mendes) this year opposite Miramax's "The Gangs of New York" (Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Martin Scorsese). It could get ugly...again.
By all means, see "Chocolat" if you are so inclined, but please do not fall for Miramax's campaigning. Just because someone is "selling" a movie with good intentions doesn't mean that the movie is automatically the most wonderful thing on Earth. In a sense, this sort of Oscar marketing is far more pernicious than the marketing of a summer blockbuster like "Gladiator" or "Mission: Impossible 2." At the very least, a popcorn flick doesn't try to persuade viewers that it is greater than it really is, while a Miramax Oscar campaign not only gives a movie false airs, it also attempts to "de-value" the worth of other, better films.
Those nasty Miramax ads in industry mags "Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter" only whet my appetite for the class that DreamWorks displayed in their ads for "Saving Private Ryan." Using a still shot of the backs of two soldiers helping each other crawl onto the beach during the invasion of Normandy, the only words that appeared in the ad were, near the top of the page, "We are proud." Now, THAT is the way to go about these things.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks oh-so-clean with nary a scratch, flick, or pixel drop-out. Some scenes take place in dimly lit settings, but you can still make out individual objects. Colors look natural and realistic, and the red cloaks worn by Binoche and Thivisol appear especially fiery and alive. However, the video is also a bit on the soft side, but I'm guessing that the filmmakers intended for their movie to look slightly hazy, imparting a dreamy feel to the audience.
Originally released in theatres with a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track, it is only fitting that this movie, set in France, enjoy the added bonus of a DD 5.1 French dub on its DVD. (I know Binoche's voice fairly well from watching so many of her French language films, so I don't think she was on hand to dub her own dialogue...a pity.) A small film, "Chocolat" doesn't sound very busy usually. Once in a while, though, a storm or two blows through town, and the surrounds throw their weight around the room as well as the front channels do. Most of the bass output comes courtesy of Rachel Portman's quixotic, slightly tipsy music score. Everything sounds smooth and well-integrated.
English and Spanish subtitles as well as English closed captions support the DVD's audio tracks.
The "Chocolat" DVD is another entry in Miramax's Collector's Series, and the studio has graced the film with a nice slate of extras that complements the atmosphere of the production. Everything feels both fluffy and substantive at the same time, kinda like some of the richer varieties of chocolate.
The extra that deals most directly with the film is the audio commentary with director Lasses Hallstrom and producers David Brown, Kit Golden, and Leslie Holleran. The four have a good time just chatting, remembering good times, etc. This commentary reminds me of those articles that "The New York Times" prints every so often, articles written by reporters who've spent a day watching a movie with a filmmaker while discussing what the film might've meant in the filmmaker's life.
"The Making of 'Chocolat'" is this DVD's half-hour primary featurette. As with so many of these mini-documentaries, there's never quite enough time to talk to everybody about everything, but it's enjoyable to see the cast and crew step out of character for some normal banter. The thing is, all the filmmakers involved with "Chocolat" take their jobs as artists very seriously, so, once in a while, you can see the slightest bit of discomfort in their eyes as they try to muddle their way through a promotional bit.
There are two other featurettes on this DVD. "The Costumes of 'Chocolat'" is a brief look at Renee Ehrlich Kalfus's clothing creations, and the Production Design Featurette takes viewers to the little French town where the film was shot. The footage available could've been edited together with the main featurette, but a studio has to pay royalties on anything running longer than thirty minutes (anything longer than that time is not considered to be "promotional" duty on the part of the cast and crew).
Finally, there are seven deleted scenes, mostly just short bits that were cut out to bring the film down to two hours and to tighten the film's pacing. For aspiring filmmakers, it's a nice way to see how little trims here and there can improve a film's final presentation.
For the trailer glutton in all of us, Miramax has thrown nine "Sneak Peeks" of other Miramax films into the "Chocolat" DVD mix. There isn't a trailer for the main feature itself, but that's not too surprising given Buena Vista's (Miramax's parent company) spotty record when it comes to placing a film's own trailer on its DVD.
A glossy one-sheet insert displays "Chocolat" artwork on one side and provides chapter listings on the other.
Miramax has done a nice job with the "Chocolat" DVD. Granted, this release isn't as momentous as New Line's "infinifilm" edition of "Thirteen Days," but even I know that not every film requires a super-deluxe treatment. That would be sheer overkill. "Chocolat" works as a very nice, very easy-going time at the movies (or in your living room). Everyone can gather around the TV for a life-affirming look at the world. Just don't expect high art, though.