Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #20--Chocolat (2000)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

"Chocolat is my favorite because it's beloved by everyone who sees it. I've never had that experience: I've never had a movie where people come up to you and say, 'Thank you.'" 
-- Producer David Brown

Chocolat is sweet! In it, mysterious strangers, Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), wander into a quiet French village and set up a chocolate shop. For these villagers, such a change to the status quo--in the middle of Lent, no less--sparks endless speculation and gossip. While the town mayor, Comte De Reynaud (Alfred Molina), is determined to evict these newcomers from his town, the villagers are more receptive to Vianne's magical concoctions and unique views. Affecting everyone's lives, Vianne not only tips the town's status quo but also finds herself changed for the better. "I think what's wonderful about the story is that by Vianne selling small dreams and little comforts through chocolates, she's going to bit-by-bit transform people's lives." Juliette Binoche said. "That's always frightening when you have an outsider because things can change."

Based on the best-selling novel by Joanne Harris, Chocolat reunited Johnny Depp with What's Eating Gilbert Grape? director Lasse Hollstrom. I was very excited about that! I was also thrilled with the rest of the cast. Aside from Chocolat's star, Juliette Binoche, it includes Alfred Molina (who worked with Johnny in Dead Man), Lena Olin (Lasse Hollstrom's wife, who costarred with Johnny in The Ninth Gate), Carrie-Anne Moss (the lady from The Matrix), and Judy Dench. (They don't call her Dame for nothing.) Although she has a small part, most exciting to me was that Leslie Caron was also in this movie. Yeah, Leslie Caron of An American in Paris (Gene Kelly's Oscar-winning musical, which I've seen a zillion times)! Johnny gets to work with the coolest people.

Who doesn't want some Chocolat?
With an international cast, French subject, and Swedish director, Chocolat was a surprise hit around the world. From Kansas City to Berlin, producer David Brown noted, "The audience reaction is almost identical. It's remarkable how universal this story is." I can attest to this, as I saw Chocolat in Akron, Ohio, with my parents and a visiting Japanese business associate: We all really enjoyed it.

Chocolat has so many unique ingredients--a mix of interesting characters with strong personalities, a sprinkling of  fantasy, a splash of adventure--It's hard not to find something to like about it. Even though it takes place in France, audiences related to this story and its characters, recognizing that the village could just as easily be their hometown. "Chocolat is a fable-like story. There are elements of fantasy in it, but Lasse always keeps it grounded in a kind of emotional reality," scriptwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs said. "Even if there's something magical going on, there's an emotional honesty about the performances and how the scenes are done that I think is one of Lasse's great strengths as a director."

"Hey, Melissa, where's Johnny?"
My dad asked me this, in a loud whisper from a few seats over, midway through Chocolat. While my eyes rolled at the time, it's a fair question: Johnny doesn't show up until the second half of this movie. But he was keen to work with Lasse Hollstrom again, hoping to show that he was in a better mood and easier to work with than he was during the Gilbert Grape shoot 7 years before.

This time, Johnny plays Roux, a traveling Irishman with his gypsy family--more outsiders (or, as Compte De Reynaud describes them, "ruthless, godless drifters"). Johnny was hooked as soon as he read Chocolat's screenplay and connected to the story's theme: "It's okay to break the sort of boundaries of what's normal," he said. "You've got to step outside of that and break the routine and not be so afraid to try new things."Aside from a new accent, Johnny shows off his guitar-playing skills in Chocolat, tackling some blues and Django Reinhardt tunes. (Now, that's exciting!) "He's a terrific musician," Lasse Hollstrom observed. "And he really enjoyed the whole angle of this story, of this character."

Lasse Hollstrom created a relaxed, happy set, even though everyone was sick of eating chocolate--some even physically--by the end of the shoot. (Johnny doesn't even like chocolate!) The director allowed all the actors to contribute ideas on any level. "Lasse is always hypersensitive to not just the emotions of the scene, but the emotions of the actors before going into the scene, the emotions of the crew," Johnny explained. "It allows you the freedom to be comfortable, to just create something on the spot, not just stick exactly to the words, but maybe find something different." As he did on the Gilbert Grape set, Lasse Hollstrom encouraged such improvisation. The collaborative atmosphere garnered positive results: While filming Chocolat, he noted, "I think it will show on the screen that we actually had fun making it."

Chocolat was nominated for a bunch of different awards all over the place, and won a few. Its five Oscar nominations included acting honors for Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench as well as nods for best music, best writing, and best picture.

The Kitties are chocolat-covered.
There are too many great characters in this movie to fit into one scene, so I created my own mixture. On the morning of the chocolate festival, Vianne (Lily) feels defeated, that everyone in town is against her. Having always travelled with the Northern wind, she feels it calling her to her next unknown destination. Just as she and Anouk (Mini) are set to leave, however, Josephine (Lena Olin/Ashes) reminds them of all the lives they've touched and the loving community they've harvested:

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp--Film #20--Chocolat (2000) [February 12, 2012]
  • Armande Voizin (Judi Dench/The Mother Kitty) and her daughter Caroline (Carrie-Ann Moss) are finally on good terms. 
  • Caroline has eased up on worrying so much: Allowing her son Luc (Aurelien Parent Koenig/Simon) to ride his dad's bike around town is a big step! 
  • Guillaume Blerot (John Wood/B.J). and Madame Audel (Leslie Caron) are finally out on a date, taking Charlie (the dog) out for a stroll. 
  • Roux (Gordon) has returned! Maybe it's to check his handy-work on Vianne's front door, or maybe he's realized something more important. 
  • Of course, Pantoufle is there too...for now. (All good stories should include a kangaroo, don't you think?) 
  • And, don't worry--I don't think anyone but Pere Henri (Hugh O'Conor/Comet) has noticed Comte. De Reynaud (Norman), who has passed out after a valiant battle against Vianne's blasphemous window display of chocolates and all that it and she stand for.

When Comte. De Reynaud awakens, will he finally give in to all these changes in his town and accept Vianne with an open heart? Will the townspeople embrace the newfound lightness Vianne has instilled in them? Will Vianne be willing to break her own traditions by staying put, surrounded by a community she helped create? See the movie to find out. (I don't want to tell you everything!) For once, I recommend a chocolate snack instead of popcorn.

Bon Bon, anyone?
Next, Johnny gets dressed up for two cameo roles in Before Night Falls. One is clearly prettier than the other....

(Aside from my illustration, all images © Miramax Films.)

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