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Every once in a while a film comes along that slips under the guard of even the most passionate film buff, destined to emerge as a surprisingly huge hit once the popular word gets around. Chocolat was unknown to many until it was nominated for five Academy Awards in a particularly strong Oscar field. Having not seen the film during its theatrical run in Australia, I was looking forward to watching the DVD and deciding whether the hype and praise was justified. Let’s just say I was satisfied, just as I would be with a long, smooth cup of hot chocolate, I suppose.

Movie
Set in the French village of Lansquenet during the 1950s, the film tells the story of Vianne Rocher, who drifts from town to town with her daughter, and sets up a Chocolaterie during Easter. Being a highly religious establishment, her delectable venture causes more than the odd stir, with the Mayor of the town determined to undermine the business which threatens to make a mockery of their religious fasting during the period of Lent. But the town is also relatively monotonous for many, and the chocolaterie soon becomes the alluring change they have all subconsciously been waiting for. Their thoughts turn to chocolate covered peanuts, cups of hot chocolate, or even Vianne’s special chocolate seashells. So did mine when I watched the film actually.

Very little goes on the town of Lansquenet, which translates into very little action on screen in the film. However, it is the unspoken word and creative subtlety that drive the key issues in the story. Just like his previous efforts, Lasse Halstrom delivers not so much in the entertainment stakes, but in the alarmingly accurate portrayal of characters and their situations. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was a triumph in allowing the audience to think about more than what they saw before them. The Cider House Rules looked into the minds of the characters and lifted a realistic story into the realm of greatness. Chocolat continues the trend by steering away from the familiar path and providing us with a suburban story filled with interesting relationships. Vianne and her daughter are meant to stand out, and the rest of the townspeople are drawn one by one by their charm and, of course, their chocolate.

Binoche is sweet like Chocolate
Juliette Binoche was first choice to play Vianne, and no one could have done any better. She oozes generosity and charisma, charming the pants of both the characters and the audience with ease. She is pivotal to the likeability of the characters and the story, and is totally convincing as a single mother trying to make her way in her own unique style. Alfred Molina plays the disgruntled and vengeful mayor to a tea. I almost fell off my chair when I found out he wasn’t actually French. Judi Dench deserved her Oscar nomination as the ageing Armande, and was again the first choice to play the tough role of a hard-nosed old woman who still carries a soft touch that emerges through Vianne’s hospitality. Johnny Depp is his usually solid self in a small but important role, although the character wasn’t one of the most challenging he’s ever tackled. Being a “small town” movie there are plenty of minor cameos and bit-parts, which are lead admirably by Hallstrom’s real life partner Lena Olin, who plays another character transformed by the arrival of Vianne and her chocolaterie.

Many juvenile video store clerks will probably file this one under the “arthouse” section of their local establishment, but Chocolat is plenty more than a film without a category. If anything it’s a drama that hasn’t been played out this way before, hence the lazy classification as an “arty” piece of work. Subtlety is the key, much like the mouth-watering textures of Vianne’s chocolate seashells.

Elvis eat your heart out
Video
The film is presented in 1.78:1 and is 16:9 enhanced. The transfer is stunning, with the colours of the town rendered particularly well amongst the light colours of the buildings and sun-lit surroundings. Achieving a high level of cinematography was obviously a priority, so this transfer thankfully does the film justice. The picture seems to be softened a little, but is appropriate to the kind of feeling the film is going for.

Overall, a particularly attractive picture, due both to the cinematography and the impressive transfer.

Audio
The score for the film is the most remarkable audio element on the disc. The main “theme” music in the movie is brilliant on the ears and is delightful to listen to in the disc’s menu. The changes in music are played to perfection without going for the totally obvious when the mood of the film is shifted.

To push the score out to the ears we have a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which, again, is great to listen to. The dialogue is clear and always understandable, though there isn’t all that much scope for directionality in the sound effects. At least we can hear the music playing the whole time, and that’s enough for me.

Johnny Depp's on screen guitar debut
Extras
Included on the disc is a nice group of extras, covering most of the additional material we would want to know about the film.

The audio commentary includes Director Hallstrom and Producers David Brown, Kit Golden and Leslie Halloran. Hallstrom is an interesting person, as evidenced by another extra included on the disc, but in the commentary he is relatively quiet compared to the producers. There is a fair bit of information to cover the whole track and it is definitely worth a listen, though its probably not one of the most remarkable commentaries of recent times.

The Making Of featurette is a notch above the promotional fluff we often witness, with interviews and behind the scenes footage neatly cut together with shots from the film. There are more bits of information to glean from this 25-minute piece, which is a worthy addition and a good companion to the commentary track. The other featurette concerns the costumes and, though short, it is definitely an interesting addition to the disc, with the film obviously placing high importance on the look of the characters on screen.

The deleted scenes section contains  seven scenes cut from the film, although there are no notes or commentary to explain the reasons behind the decisions. They range from the short to the very impressive, with a touching scene involving Judi Dench taking up a position in the latter category.

We also receive Biographies for the main cast and the Director as well as trailers for The Wedding Planner and The English Patient.

Overall
There is no doubt Chocolat surprised me just how good it actually was. While there’s not a lot of action or straight out comedy, the subtlety of the story and the familiarity of the characters made the movie an absolute standout. It is presented on an equally impressive disc, with quality extras doing enough to satisfy. There’s the solid movie base, lined with a good transfer and impressive audio and sprinkled with a generous amount of extras. Sounds like a recipe for chocolate cake if you ask me. And believe me, it tastes pretty good.


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