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In the tiny French village of Lansquenet, life goes on much as it has for the past hundreds of years. Everyone knows their place and exactly what’s expected of them. Tranquility reigns supreme, though a few of the villagers yearn for something different, something more. Then one winter day in 1959, the clever north wind blows in the wandering Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, who set up a chocolaterie. But it’s not ordinary chocolate that Vianne sells, but chocolate from an ancient recipe, chocolate that seems magical in the way it reveals hidden desires and revives almost-forgotten passions.

Director Lasse Hallström brings to Chocolat the same deft balance of character, visual imagery, humor, and drama as in The Cider House Rules, creating a tiny, perfect gem of a film, as exquisite as the perfect chocolates that Vianne concocts. The back-cover copy of the DVD describes the film as a “comedy,” but in fact Chocolat defies categorization as either a comedy or a drama. The tone is bright, warm, often humorous, but the core of the film is serious, taking an honest and dramatic look into the lives of people who are desperately trying to find meaning, happiness, and security in their lives. The result is a movie that displays a generous sense of humanity: willing to laugh, yet recognizing human frailty; honestly acknowledging pain, while light-heartedly celebrating individuality and the potential for happiness in each person.

I’m not usually good at keeping track of ensemble casts, but the supporting actors in Chocolat are so memorable (and so well-cast and well-acted) that I didn’t have any trouble at all. There are no one-dimensional or even two-dimensional characters here, no “good guys” and “bad guys”; instead, we have characters who display all of life’s complexities, contradictions, and confusions, portrayed by actors who are able to convey volumes with a few spoken lines or even just the expression on their faces. Binoche does a wonderful job of portraying the difficult part of Vianne, with excellent supporting performances by Judi Dench, Carrie-Anne Moss, Lena Olin, Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp, and others.

Chocolat is fundamentally an upbeat film, but it doesn’t try to sugar-coat the pain or the dilemmas of its characters. Likewise, one reason why the film is so intensely satisfying is that it explores, with a light yet accurate touch, some very significant themes. Vianne and her daughter Anouk may be the emblems of free expression and change, but even so, they struggle with the pain of being different; the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) represents a conservatism that can be seen as repressive, yet the traditions that he seeks to preserve have real value. Similarly, Hallström deftly crafts the film to avoid a simplistic case of “the individual versus the community”; instead, we see that every character feels a need to belong to some kind of group, whether it’s that of the town, the traveling society of the “river rats,” or even the tiny “community” of Vianne and Anouk. What Chocolat suggests is that we should be aware of the difference between building communities by including people, and defining them by excluding people.

The beauty of Hallström’s treatment of these themes is that the film does not say “Vianne’s way is better.” Instead, it presents a far more challenging message, and one that even Vianne herself must face: “Choose your own way.”

A fairy-tale feel to the story, enhanced by the use of a narrator at certain points of the movie, adds the perfect finishing touch to Chocolat. Characterization, themes, tone, and music all fit perfectly together, making it an utterly charming, rich, and satisfying film. Chocolat was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, though it very unjustly was overlooked in the wake of films like the Hollywood blockbusters Gladiator and Erin Brockovich. While I did enjoy Gladiator, in my view Chocolat was the film that truly deserved the 2001 Best Picture award.

When I walked out of the movie theater, I knew that I wanted to own Chocolat on DVD, which left me hoping that the video quality would live up to my expectations. Well, I have good news: I really don’t see how the video quality could be much better than it is. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is lovely, with a clear, noise-free image with good colors. It might very well look better than it did in the movie theater.

Chocolat’s soundtrack is presented in Dolby 5.1, and provides excellent sound quality. In addition to clear dialogue, the soundtrack also perfectly conveys small environmental noises such as the sound of chocolate being poured, or the clink of a china cup, which are quite significant to the film. The music is perfectly balanced with the rest of the soundtrack, enhancing but never overpowering the other elements of the film. It’s a fabulous score, by the way, with several memorable themes that perfectly convey the mood of the scene and of the film as a whole. My only quibble with the sound is that while the surround effects were good, they were used quite sparingly, so the sound didn’t end up having a completely immersive effect.

A half-hour-long documentary, “The Making of Chocolat,” provides a very interesting look behind the scenes at the process of taking Chocolat from its origins in the novel by Joanne Harris to the screen. Two shorter but still worthwhile features, “The Costumes of Chocolat” and a “Production Design” featurette, clock in at about ten minutes apiece.

A generous sampling of deleted scenes and an audio commentary with Lasse Hallström and producers David Brown, Kit Golden, and Leslie Holleran round out the special features section.

Chocolat’s menus are well done, with an artistic themed animation as a backdrop to easy-to-navigate menu choices.

What can I say? This is a top-notch treatment of a fantastic movie. Go buy it now, or at least rent it. You won’t regret it, I promise.