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Chocolat: kids’ stuff from Miramax

As the race for the Oscars hots up, best picture nominee Chocolat is posing as the independent contender. But is there anything radical about this sickly sweet confection?

Victor Rortvedt

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‘It’s not easy being different’, explains Juliette Binoche to her distraught daughter in the romantic fable Chocolat.

Binoche plays a single mother who has recently opened up shop as a chocolatier in an ultra-conservative French village during Lent, 1960. We learn later that her individualist personality stems from being the daughter of a nomadic Mayan cacao priestess – of course. This ‘different’ background has instilled in our heroine the value of all things sensual, the banality of Mass, the simplistic ignorant depravity of wife-beaters, and a passion for guitar-strumming Irish river-rats that look like Johnny Depp.

But for her outsider background, Binoche seems ideologically identical to your average Starbucks-swilling, church-avoiding, indigenous-culture embracing, organic-food-shopping urbanite. The film unintentionally elucidates a fantasy of the modern liberal – to go back in time and solve the problems of that repressed generation, simply by spouting a few progressive proverbs. This fantasy is lived out through Binoche, who is blessed to have the modern wisdom of feminism, a love for sensuality and sensitivity, along with vibrant fashionable clothes – the ideal modern urban woman.

Going back to that oh-so-perceptive line about the perils of difference, we can see Chocolat’s modus operandi quite clearly – sell conformity as individualism. And this is nothing new for Miramax, the film’s distributor.

The studio’s mantra is carrying the film, along with underdog sentiment that this very overdog company (two Best Picture Oscars in the past four years) has perfected, all the way to the Academy Awards. Miramax is pinning its hopes on young voters who identify with the ideological fable that reassures them that theirs is the most enlightened era.

In 1998 the Elizabethan light romance Shakespeare In Love pulled the rug out from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in capturing top honors at the Oscars. Both were historical films – but Miramax’s humanistic ode to love and poetry touched a nerve with the modern audience, whereas Spielberg’s film may have been too authentic for its own good.

If it were not for that paragon of modern life American Beauty, last year’s honours could have fallen into the lap of Miramax’s The Cider House Rules. This was supposed to be a controversial film dealing with abortion (hardly a wild leap for a country where abortion has been legal for thirty years). Miramax is having wild success by staging period pieces with time-warped modern protagonists – our identification with them is due to a lack of influence by their environment and an inexplicable schooling for the modern climate.

Chocolat is nominated for Best Picture and four other awards, all for making such a focus-grouped work of fluff that its characters ring about as true as those in a Disney sequel. But at least Disney (which owns Miramax) is honest about the intellectual demands of their children’s films, while Miramax sells simplistic wish-fulfillment as an important progressive examination of the evils/value of [insert topical issue, eg, domestic abuse/tolerance].

The minute each supporting character appears in the film – from the estranged grandmother to the manipulative power-mad mayor – their repression problem is clear, and all it takes is a little liberal magic to clean up all those rough edges. Psychotic kleptomaniac victim of domestic abuse? Have a dependent friendship with a feminist and a little chocolate. Repressed child of an overbearing mother? Get sensitive support for your drawing skill and drink some hot cocoa.

Cardboard characters have a utility in openly cardboard movies, but the real malignancy of Miramax’s Chocolat is that it attempts to convince us that it is important, that it is at the forefront of vital and progressive cinema. And we as the audience are made to feel good about this, because while watching what is essentially a children’s film – we are shown inane, simple cruelty by simple, cruel men – we are told that this is a progressive and challenging film, while pleasantly having avoided being truly challenged.

Miramax is driven by the same forces that propel the other movie giants that independent cinema was supposed to slay. But with superficially progressive films like Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, Miramax is still bearing the torch of radical cinema, while in truth just pandering to their principle demographics’ ideology.

It was not always so – when Miramax released Pulp Fiction in 1994, it marked the independent film movement’s entry into adolescence. In 1996 The English Patient dominated the Oscars, but it had to beat out a few of its own studio’s films in the year when ‘indie’ cinema grew up and started playing with the big boys.

But while The English Patient was a fine film, it was hardly radical in subject or independent in funding. And so Miramax the torchbearers of vital cinema became Miramax the highbrow crowd-pleasers – for a crowd that needs to feel that the films they watch are better, more responsible than the action and gross-out comedy fanfare of the mainstream audiences.

The film studio’s great coup is to produce masked films that appease this sensibility in conscious urbanites, while delivering the same level of fatuous gratification as the lowest common-denominator movies that Chocolat’s audience is so desperate to avoid.

There is no dearth of truly progressive and challenging films being produced today, most notably the Danish film collective Dogme95’s manifestoed releases. But while the shadow of Miramax hangs over independent cinema and the giant refuses to give up its previously rightful claim to the American indie throne, the new generation of filmmaking risks being tainted by the conformist attitudes of an art studio that became a business without anybody noticing.

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