Page to Screen: Chocolat (2000)

based on the novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Watching Chocolat is like coming home a bit. Vianne reminds me of my mother a little, especially the way she carries herself. This film is a favorite in my family, but since we’re French and we like chocolate, we’re practically obligated!

Chocolat follows the story of Joanne Harris’ novel with a few changes. Vianne Rocher and her daughter, Anouk, arrive in a small French town in 1959 and open up a chocolaterie–during Lent. The moral leader and mayor of the town, the Comte Paul de Reynaud, is outraged by this. Vianne’s chocolates and friendship begin to shake up the town, and the two butt heads well until Easter.

I much prefer Chocolat being set in 1959. As I mentioned in my review, it was a little odd to see such a conservative community in 1999, especially their views concerning Anouk’s mysterious parentage and Josephine, a battered wife. It just makes more sense to have it set in such a conservative period. It also lends itself to a delicious period costume vocabulary. That costume vocabulary also ties into the fable-like nature of Chocolat. There’s a moment when Anouk, teased at school, rushes home and demands why her mother doesn’t wear black shoes like all the other mothers. Vianne is dressed brightly and sensuously–even at her most matronly (which is difficult to do with the gorgeous Juliette Binoche!), her waist and sly smile clearly mark her as a free spirit. The townspeople initially dress very severely, but those that Vianne wins over start to dress better and brighter.

The lilting narration adds to the fairy tale atmosphere. The backstory concerning Vianne and her mother is much more interesting, especially the role of the North Wind in the travels of the Rochers. It’s a wonderful moment when Vianne tells Anouk the story of her mother and her father as a bedtime story. I’m quite pleased that the filmmakers didn’t feel a need, as many film adaptations today do feel, to stick to the novel at every point. It’s quite a deft adaptation, taking all the best parts and smoothing over the very few rough spots present in the novel.

Making Paul de Reynaud the mayor rather than the local priest is a smart and wonderful move. It makes both him and the Church far more sympathetic than in the novel. Occasionally, the novel can come across as Vianne and individuality versus the Church (again, an odd match in 1999 France), but the film is far more graceful on the subject. Reynaud is a honestly devout man, and I was especially touched by his dismay and horror at discovering that Josephine was beaten by her husband and what he does to correct the issue–on his terms, of course. Père Henri, the very young priest, is sweet and earnest, easily influenced by Reynaud’s authority but seeking to apply Christ’s teachings to his little town. His sermon on Easter at the end of the film is absolutely wonderful.

Of course, the food is just as delectable as in the novel. The camera lovingly captures Vianne mixing chocolate, pouring cocoa, grinding cocoa beans, and presenting delicious chocolate creations. Watching Vianne dust a chocolate cake with cocoa powder and almonds made my stomach cry out in hunger. Watching this film will make you crave chocolate like never before.

The film is much more lighthearted than the novel, due to its better treatment of Reynaud. The writing is sly and witty, especially whenever Roux, Vianne’s love interest, is around. Some of the best jokes surround the townspeople, especially Guilliame and his love for the Widow Audel. It’s a film with its heart in the right place all the time, which can be difficult to find these days. It deserves it awards.

Chocolat is a deft adaptation of Joanne Harris’ novel, placing it exactly where it makes the most sense and smoothing over the very few rough patches in Harris’ novel. It’s a wonderful and charming comedy with its heart in the right place. It may be, I’m almost afraid to say, better than the novel!

You can read my review of the novel here.

I attended a free showing of this film.

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