Chocolat is a fitting project for director Lasse Hallström, whose films offer a carefully measured blend of sweetness and darkness. From his breakthrough international success My Life as a Dog to his 1993 sleeper What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee The Cider House Rules, this gentle Swedish filmmaker has brought an exceptionally humane touch to his tales of eccentric societal outcasts. Now, with Miramax’s Chocolat, he has created an irresistible holiday treat from Joanne Harris’ acclaimed novel about a free-spirited single mother who runs a chocolate shop in a rigidly conservative 1950s French village. Juliette Binoche heads a gifted international ensemble cast that includes Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix), Peter Stormare (Fargo), John Wood, Leslie Caron, Hugh O’Conor, and young Victoire Thivisol of Ponette fame.
In Robert Nelson Jacobs’ screenplay adaptation, the arrival of Vianne Rocher (Binoche) in the town of Lansquenet provokes the wrath of powerful, strait-laced nobleman the Comte de Reynaud (Molina), who’s outraged by her defiant atheism and by her decision to open a chocolaterie in the middle of Lent. But the mysterious shopkeeper, whose sweets seem to possess unnatural powers, soon gathers her own loyal set of allies: a cantankerous grandmother (Dench), an abused wife (Olin), and a seductive Irish river rat (Depp).
Hallström can’t resist a dessert metaphor as he describes the effort to provide meaningful moments for his entire formidable cast. “Weaving their stories together I would compare to the making of a chocolate souffle. It had this delicate balance and it had to have the right ingredients, the right proportions, the right temperature and the right timing. Editing and layering the scenes was a wonderful experiment.”
From the beginning, the director says, his aim was to “just tell the story straightforwardly and try to be truthful with the performances. I thought that might be the key to getting away with mixing the fable-like elements with the farcical and dramatic elements.”
Coming from a fairly liberated country like Sweden, Hallström admits, “I can’t say that I’ve experienced much of this small-town, hypocritical atmosphere. I haven’t experienced it strongly enough to have that as a motivation for being drawn to this story. I certainly appreciate and sympathize with the message of the importance of tolerance toward what is foreign and different, because that’s what I’ve been doing in movies—portraying outcasts and eccentrics and not trying to be judgmental about them. So it runs along with my ambitions. But the draw was this wonderful mix. I have very little interest in genre-bound movies like comedies versus dramas. The ones that try to blend and cross over fascinate me.”
A youthful-looking 54, Hallström today lives in Bedford, New York, with his wife Lena Olin and their two children. Coming to terms with American mores, he notes, has been an eye-opener. “There’s this absolutely fascinating distinction of trying to protect children from sex, and a total liberal attitude when it comes to violence. That’s just shocking to any European who comes here. The hypocrisy, as if showing sensuality would be more a danger to children than showing violence—that’s just an American oddity that I have a hard time accepting.”
Hallström experienced a few jitters about the American political climate while preparing his 1999 hit The Cider House Rules, in which Oscar-winner Michael Caine plays an endearing New England abortionist. “When I was in post-production,” he recalls, “I had this growing realization that this was much more controversial than I had imagined, as I got to know more and more about the very forceful pro-life movement. I was pretty scared at the time of the opening of the movie. But I was very happy to see that there was almost no controversy. It’s strange that there was such a muted response from the pro-life movement. Which tells me that we managed to get our message across in an emotional way. The fact that we weren’t militant about it but still didn’t back away from it was successful.”
In the film version of Chocolat, the heroine’s nemesis has been changed from a priest to a nobleman. Asked whether that alteration was made to avoid charges of “Catholic bashing,” the director responds, “There might have been early worries about this, but they quickly turned into assets. I think it’s such an interesting complication to have the mayor dominate the church and be in control of the new priest. It adds dimension to the story. I think we would have run out of steam with the more simplistic ‘church vs. chocolate’ approach, which the writer gets away with in the novel.”
Chocolat marks the first time Hallström has worked with his wife, Lena Olin, the beautiful and compelling star of such films as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Havana and The Ninth Gate. “It was just a delight to work together,” he declares. “There was nothing forced about it. I was a little bit dreading the awkwardness of directing one’s wife, but it was such a natural thing. I could inspire her to go off in slightly different directions, and she inspired me with surprising choices.”
The film also reunites Olin and Juliette Binoche, whose memorable pairing in The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a turning point in both their careers. “It was sort of a bonus that they had worked together before,” Hallström notes “The comfort level right from the start shows in the film—there’s a chemistry between them.”
Chocolat shot for three weeks in the tenth-century town of Flavigny, near Dijon in the Burgundy region of France, then moved to Shepperton Studios in England, where an exact replica of the Flavigny town square was constructed, along with the chocolate shop and other interiors. Surprisingly, the cast and crew didn’t fatten up on sweets. “If anything, it was the French food,” Hallström laughs. “We lost weight once we got to England. But we didn’t indulge in chocolate. Having chocolates around day after day, week after week, it doesn’t become as attractive. We had some incidents with plastic chocolates being chewed on by extras. But the French food was fantastic.”
Born in Stockholm, Lasse Hallström began his career making music-videos for the immensely popular Swedish pop group ABBA, and directed their 1977 feature ABBA—The Movie. He made several more features in Sweden before his worldwide success My Life as a Dog, a funny and touching coming-of-age film that earned him Oscar nominations for both his screenplay adaptation and direction.
“That was quite a year,” Hallström recalls, “the wave of warmth that came towards me. I was here to promote it, and I got such an incredible response, a genuinely warm response from journalists and viewers in general. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Asked if he’d been dreaming of an international career during his early years as a filmmaker in Sweden, Hallström reflects, “I may have when I was a teenager and read about American movies and Hollywood. There must have been some fantasy then, not that I can recall it now. Then I had my Swedish career and I was absolutely content with working in Sweden as a film director until My Life as a Dog and the possibilities that opened up here. I got a taste, and the temptation was so strong, the ability to work in a language that would allow my movies to travel all over the world. It still fascinates me, I’m still here.”
Hallstrom made his American debut in 1991 with the Holly Hunter-Richard Dreyfuss romantic comedy Once Around, and his follow-up Gilbert Grape earned Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar nomination and found extended life on video. Next came the Julia Roberts starrer Something to Talk About, and a second Oscar nomination for Best Director for The Cider House Rules.
Hallström is now preparing for a March start date on The Shipping News, the long-awaited film of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a lonely newspaperman in a Newfoundland shipping community. Chocolat screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs is adapting the book, and Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore head the cast. Hallström explains his attraction to the property: “On the side of my mother, who grew up on an island, they were all captains and sailors. Every summer in Stockholm archipelago, we had a boat, so I’m fascinated by the sea and by boating—it’s part of my upbringing. The Newfoundland backdrop also intrigues me. Marshall McLuhan, who was a Newfoundlander, said that it is the last outpost of true wilderness—civilization has ruined so much of the world, but Newfoundland remains untouched.”
The Shipping News will be Hallström’s third film in a row for Miramax, a company which worked wonders for The Cider House Rules, helping it earn seven Oscar nominations, and which is planning a similar Academy Award push for Chocolat. Like the heroine of his latest film, Hallström seems to have found a recipe no one can resist.