Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:01 - Released 12/22/00

Most movies play solely to the eyes and ears in us, but occasionally one comes along that seems to appeal to all the senses, defying the inherent physical impossibilities; Lasse Hallström's Chocolat is such a film. While it portrays a nice love story and no small amount of social commentary, Chocolat has us practically smelling and tasting every scene. A romantic comedy with a decidedly sweet tooth, it tells the story of a single mother in the mid-1950s who moves to a small town in France and opens a gourmet chocolate shop with nearly spiritual consequences. Besides the effervescent interaction among its cast members, and the subtly elegant screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs (based on the book by Joanne Harris), the film has so many beautiful images of the preparation of the cacao-based confectionary it's positively inspiring. I've not had a film make me crave chockies so much since Willy Wonka.

As the film's opening narration points out, the tiny, provincial town into which Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her pre-teen daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) move is not known for its adventurism. Nearly everyone attends the regular Catholic church services, and since the film begins during Lent, the sermons are all about resisting temptation. The church attendance is overseen by the town's stern mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who, because of his lack of faith in the new twenty-something priest (Hugh O'Conor), takes it upon himself to write sermons for the father to deliver. Into this austere atmosphere comes Vianne, who not only does not attend church, but has the nerve to open a chocolaterie in the midst of this holy period. Although some of the more pious townspeople see Vianne as a threat from the start, she does make a few friends, primarily because of the astounding nature of her product. Using an ancient family recipe passed down by her mysterious Incan mother, Vianne blends cacao with Mexican chili peppers, resulting in a confection that lightens people's hearts and prompts vigorous lovemaking between couples who had lost their spark. One of these friends is the elderly Amande Voizin (Judi Dench), whose age-old feud with her daughter Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss) had turned her into a tired, bitter old woman.

After some time has passed and Vianne has established an uneasy truce with Reynaud and his followers, a group of gypsy-like "river people" led by the dashing Roux (Johnny Depp) arrives, prompting societal outrage and an open campaign of hostility toward the visitors. Naturally, this prompts Vianne to become friends with Roux, and their association nearly tears the town apart. Interwoven into this is another sub-plot involving an abused wife (Lena Olin) who comes to live with Vianne while Reynaud tries to counsel her dim-witted, alcoholic husband (Peter Stormare) back to a state of propriety.

Chocolat gives director Hallström, who helmed last year's variously-nominated The Cider House Rules and also the masterful 1993 Depp vehicle What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, the opportunity to weave a complex and socially-conscious story into a more lighthearted presentation, and he does so with great style. His love for chocolate shows through, since it is practically elevated to the status of another character. Rich, brown, swirling bowls of the stuff, hollow Incan figurines and bowtied boxes of nuts and creams; these images are ever-swirling along with the various goings-on among the characters, with considerable depth added by the quirky original music of veteran film composer Rachel Portman. Binoche is radiant with a confident charm; she and Depp have an easy, comfortable connection with each other, and Molina provides the perfect counterpart, a villain who is at the same time a human being. Dench puts out yet another amazing performance; I'm beginning to think the woman can do no wrong. Also notable are 8-year-old Thivisol, who wowed critics as a 4-year-old in the title role of Jacques Doillon's moving Ponette (1996), and teenager Aurelien Parent-Koening, making his debut.

Religious issues, spousal abuse, strife between parent and child, alcoholism, psychological problems, love, lust, social propriety, class struggles, death. All these topics are somehow Chocolat. *****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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