The International Writers Magazine
: DVD Review

Chocolat by Joanne Harris
Directed by
Lasse Hallström

Gemma Ayres

Joanne Harris’s sumptuous and enchanting novel ‘Chocolat’ is brought to life on the big screen by Lasse Hallström, Academy Award nominated director of "The Cider House Rules". Set in the quiet and sleepy village of Lansquenet, "Chocolat" tells the story of the orderly and subservient villagers, and how their lives are transformed by the arrival of Vianne Rocher, a single mother who blows in with the warm carnival wind at the beginning of Lent and opens a chocolaterie, much to the horror of the local priest, Reynaud.

The novel is expertly crafted and beautifully written, with engaging scenes and strong characters that leap off the page. It is a real feast for the senses; the sights, sounds, scents and tastes are all so luxuriously described, such as the February wind, which is "laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles". The book is literally mouth-watering, and the descriptions so vivid, my expectations for the film were high - and I was not disappointed.

The film is visually stunning; the village used could not be more picturesque and certain shots, such as Vianne and Anouk’s arrival and when Vianne scatters her mother’s ashes, are not only poignant and moving, but also help the film to retain the magical qualities which come across so clearly in the book.
The characters, so richly painted in the novel, are as delightful and well-defined in the film, thanks to fantastic casting and brilliant performances. Juliette Binoche was Joanne Harris’s first (and only) choice for the role of Vianne, and she describes the French actress’s portrayal of the central character as "luminous". Binoche is reunited with her co-star from the 1988 film "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", Lena Olin, wife of director Lasse Hallström. Olin’s portrayal of battered wife Josephine is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and the obvious friendship between the two women off-screen adds to the glowing chemistry between their characters.

Some representations of character are very loyal to the book, such as Armande, who is played by the great Dame Judi Dench. However, fans of the book may be surprised to see that Reynaud is now the local mayor, rather than the priest. The film’s creators didn’t want to see "just another stereotypical bad guy priest", (quoted from Chocolat DVD special features - audio commentary). This change in character also allows for the addition of Père Henri, the young, rather naïve parish priest, who provides many comic scenes in the film, which work well. Despite this, Joanne Harris has reservations: "I still think it was a mistake to change my priest to a mayor, though; I know the decision came from a concern that Catholics might be offended, but by the time the film came out the book had already gained so much popularity that many readers were puzzled and disappointed at such a radical change."

Reynaud is still Vianne’s adversary in the film, although not to the extent that he is in the book. Some of the darker elements of the novel are lost in the film, certainly where the character of Reynaud is concerned. This is seen most clearly through Reynaud’s reaction to Josephine’s abusive marriage; in the book, he is aware of the abuse, but does nothing to prevent it - "Paul-Marie Muscat beats his wife". In the film, Reynaud is shocked to learn that Muscat, whose name is changed to ‘Serge’, has attacked Josephine, and promises her, "Your husband will be made to repent for this". Whilst some fans may be disappointed to learn of Reynaud’s change of role in the film, a brilliant performance by Alfred Molina more than makes up for this alteration of character, and the ‘softer’ Reynaud fits in with the tone of the film, which is altogether much lighter than the book. Many of Reynaud’s qualities that readers will have enjoyed in the book remain; he is pious, sanctimonious, and believes in ‘Church, not Chocolate’. However, by the end of the film he has redeemed himself, and there is a touching moment between him and Vianne; an unspoken look in which each express their acceptance of the other. There is also a hint of romance for Reynaud and Caroline, who herself is a much different character from in the book; here she is a widow, and much less prim than she appears in the novel, which makes her more likeable.

There are also differences to the character of Vianne; her narration in the book gives a greater insight to her character, something which cannot be transferred to the film, and yet her character is as likeable on screen as she is on the page, thanks to Binoche’s superb performance and Hallström’s skilful direction. Vianne’s past is not explored in as great a detail in the film, but the scene between her and Armande, which shows Vianne crying but then agreeing to throw Armande a birthday party, illustrates perfectly the blend of defiance and vulnerability which lies at the heart of Vianne’s character.

There are other minor changes from the book; one which neither Joanne Harris nor I could understand was why Anouk’s imaginary best friend, Pantoufle, is transformed from a rabbit to a kangaroo, an alteration which seems to serve no purpose other than to irritate loyal fans of the novel.

One change which may displease some readers but delight others is the ending. The theme of love and romance is more prevalent in the film than the book, with additional characters such as the couple who re-awaken the passion in their marriage thanks to Vianne’s chocolates. The film has more of a fairytale ending than the book; here it is Vianne, rather than Josephine, who finds ‘happily ever after’ with Roux, and the ending is more fixed than in the book. While this works here, most readers will probably agree that Harris’s chosen ending works much better in literary form.

The film manages to condense the 300 pages of a richly textured, vibrant and intoxicating novel into just under two hours, and this it does extremely well. Despite some omissions and changes to the story, the film delivers the message which Harris claims to be the most important in her novel; "enjoyment matters" quoting Joanne Harris. Fans of the book may be disappointed to see that the film has sacrificed some of the novel’s darker elements in favour of a more feel-good story; however, the changes work well and the film manages to be in turns comic and dramatic, (the ‘skillet’ scene is inspired), and could hardly fail to charm even the most reluctant viewer. As the author herself says, "the adaptation is fair and remains close in spirit, if not always in detail, to the book". This is one film truly worth indulging in.
© Gemma Ayers November 2005

Gemma is a Creative Arts major at the University of Portmsouth

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Gemma Ayres

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