This choice little fairy tale even begins with “once upon a time.”
It takes place in rural France, in a “quaint little village whose villagers believed in tranquility.” They have “learned not to ask for more.” The village is all but untouched by the outside world, and they seem to like it that way. A young priest sings an Elvis Presley song and it as though he is a visitor from a time machine.
The town is overseen by the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the mayor. He acts as a sort of moral policeman, making sure that everyone is keeping to the straight and (very) narrow. Into this paragon of rectitude and abstemiousness the wind blow a mysterious red-cloaked mother and daughter.
Vianne (Juliette Binoche, Oscar-winner for “The English Patient”) and Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) open up a chocolate shop. The Comte takes it as an affront to his authority. How dare they! In the middle of Lent! He does his best to keep customers away. But the chocolate is luscious and Vianne always seems to know just what people need. She knows how to add a touch of chili pepper to hot chocolate for spice and she has an uncanny way of giving everyone the kind of chocolate they cannot resist. She gives her chocolate to her grumpy landlord Amande (Judi Dench, Oscar-winner for “Shakespeare in Love”). She gives some to Josephine (Lena Olin), a woman who is considered a little crazy by the town, but who behaves that way to protect herself from her abusive husband. The chocolate — and Vianne’s warm heart — help both women to bloom. Vianne takes Josephine in and helps Amande get together with her estranged family.
Then the Compte is affronted further when a group of itinerants dock their houseboats in the town. Vianne becomes friendly with Roux (Johnny Depp) and this is too much for the Compte and his sidekick, Josephine’s husband Serge. Both the Compte and Vianne have to confront near disaster and their own fears. The young priest has to find a way to speak from his own heart and his own faith, to become a true spiritual leader for the community.
This whimsical little story is as delicious as its chocolates, with a terrific score and lots of great issues for family discussion.
Parents should know that Vianne never married her daughter’s father, and that in a flashback we see that she and her own mother left her father to wander. Vianne gives some chocolates to one woman to use as an aphrodisiac, and we see the gleam in her husband’s eye as he watches her, after he eats them. Later, a dog who eats some of the chocolates is similarly inspired (brief shot of dogs having sex). There are mild sexual situations with brief and inexplicit nudity. There is some social drinking and a scary fire (no one hurt). A character dies peacefully.
Families should talk about why the Compte is so threatened by Vianne and her chocolates. He seems to feel that his efforts to keep himself and others from feeling joy and passion will help him avoid sadness (and dishonor) from the desertion of his wife. Why do Vianne and Roux wander? Why is there one person whose favorite she can not guess? What is the significance of Anouk’s imaginary friend? Why is Armande’s daughter so angry with her? What do you think about the priest’s conclusion that we are judged by what we do and those we embrace rather than by what we stay away from and those we exclude? Families might also want to talk about what some of the names mean in English. For example, reynaud means fox and roux is the base that holds a soufflé together.
Families who enjoy this movie should enjoy some of their own favorite chocolates together. Some family members will also enjoy Like Water for Chocolate, another movie about a woman whose food has some magical properties (mature material).