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(2000) (Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina) (PG-13)

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Comedy/Drama: When a single, non-churchgoing mother sets up her chocolate shop in a small, religiously repressed French village, she arouses both desire and concern amongst the various residents.
It's sometime in the 1950s and in the tranquil French village of Lansquenet, everyone knows what's expected of them, and if they forget, Comte de Reynaud (ALFRED MOLINA), the town's mayor and moral bastion, is there to remind them. With Lent just beginning and a new priest, Pere Henri (HUGH O'CONOR), have only just recently arrived at the local church everyone attends, Reynaud has his hands full leading the town by example and writing Henri's sermons.

Thus, when the north winds blow Vianne Rocher (JULIETTE BINOCHE) and her daughter, Anouk (VICTOIRE THIVISOL), into town, Reynaud isn't particularly happy. For not only does the single mother not attend church, but she's also planning on opening a chocolaterie and living above it in a space leased from the village's frumpy, 70-year-old libertine, Armande Voizin (JUDI DENCH).

Soon, Reynaud is on a personal crusade to shut down Vianne's shop on the moral grounds that its decadent pleasures will corrupt the villagers. Among them is Caroline Clairmont (CARRIE-ANNE MOSS), Armande's estranged daughter who won't let her son, Luc (AURELIEN PARENT KOENIG), see his grandmother.

Nevertheless, Vianne makes friends with various villagers including Luc, as well as Josephine Muscat (LENA OLIN), the abused wife of café owner, Serge (PETER STORMARE), and Guillaume Blerot (JOHN WOOD), whose dog likes Vianne's treats while he's interested in one of the town's widows, Madame Audel (LESLIE CARON).

When a traveling band of Irish gypsies, led by Roux (JOHNNY DEPP), arrive by river, Vianne discovers a kindred spirit while Reynaud, whose wife is on an extended vacation abroad, becomes more agitated by what he sees as yet another immoral outsider attempting to corrupt his people. As Vianne takes in Josephine after Serge beats her one too many times, and becomes romantically interested in Roux, she does what she can to divert Reynaud's efforts to drive her out of the village, while her irresistible confections awaken the villagers' hidden appetites and longings.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Most everyone is familiar with the American Revolution where colonists rebelled against taxation without representation as well as the Allied liberation of France during WWII. What most probably don't know about those and other freedom-inducing conflicts was that the weapon of choice to end such tyranny and oppression wasn't muskets or cannons, or machine guns or bombers.

No, the secret weapon - familiar to any man who wants to win the battle for a woman's heart - was, of course, chocolate. The Americans may have dumped their tea into Boston Harbor, but they kept their chocolates that not only boosted their spirits, but also inspired that whole bit about "one if by land, two if by sea" (Paul was really talking about confections and not lanterns). In France, the famous D-Day invasion was followed by the lesser known C-Day one where chocolates interrupted German maneuvers due to them stopping to pick up the sweets the Allies air-dropped onto them.

Okay, I'll confess that my current chocolate buzz may have resulted in that bit of revisionary history, but it's not that much of a stretch of the imagination, is it? After all, upon seeing director Lasse Hallström's chocolate equals liberation film, the appropriately titled "Chocolat," what else was I to think?

In it, the radiant Juliette Binoche is blown into the monochromatic town - in a red cloak, no less - by a strong northerly wind and ultimately proceeds to free the morally repressed townsfolk with her exotic chocolates. Somewhat thematically and aesthetically similar to Jack Nicholson's town-jarring and ultimately liberating arrival in "The Witches of Eastwick," this film - based on Joanne Harris' novel - is a pleasant little diversion. Yet, it may leave viewers hungry for a plot and related goodies with a bit more substance and bite to them.

Like many other culinary-based films, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacob's ("Dinosaur," "Out To Sea") script uses food as an analogy for greater social concerns, and while such use clearly isn't novel, the way in which the filmmakers have fashioned their story certainly makes it quite easy to watch. Of course, it certainly helps that the story takes place during Lent, when fasting and the sight and smells of chocolate wafting through the town clearly lead to temptation and resultant moral conflict.

Yet, for such a set-up, the film never really cuts loose with as much decadent humor as one might expect. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, but they're generally only moderately pleasant and amusing for a liberation piece that probably would have benefited from a bit more of a darker and perhaps more bitter comedic approach.

Setting the story in a fictitious 1950s era French village - with the lack of any period technology enhancing the story's fable-like timelessness - the filmmakers were wise to avoid the "those small town Europeans are so whimsical in their ways" approach that may have worked in "Waking Ned Devine," but has now worn out its welcome due to overuse in subsequent films of the same nature.

That's not to say that the film's characters are boring. In fact, they're clearly what help make the picture come off as entertaining as it is. While Juliette Binoche ("The English Patient," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") gets the starring role and is quite good in it, the supporting roles often come off as more interesting than her outsider character.

Among them is Lena Olin ("The Ninth Gate," "Polish Wedding") as an abused wife who flowers under Vianne's care, and Alfred Molina ("Magnolia," "The Impostors") as the town's near tyrannical leader who thinks he's being a positive influence on everyone when in fact he's doing just the opposite.

Then there's the incomparable Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love," "Mrs. Brown") as the town's resident libertine in the film's most enjoyable role, and Johnny Depp ("Sleepy Hollow," "Benny & Joon") as an Irish gypsy, of all things, who does his own bewitching on Binoche's character. Meanwhile, Victoire Thivisol ("Ponette"), Carrie-Anne Moss ("Red Planet," "The Matrix"), Aurelien Parent Koenig (making his debut) and Peter Stormare ("Dancer in the Dark," "Fargo") are also good - though some of them aren't always likable - in their respective roles.

Hallström ("The Cider House Rules," "Something to Talk About") may get a bit heavy-handed at times in the symbolism as well as the good vs. evil approach (that obviously equals liberalism vs. conservatism). He also ends the film with two completely unnecessary shots/effects that are used to drive home the story's whimsical nature - although early into the story we already sensed that tone - that somewhat diminish the work.

Yet, the overall film nonetheless comes off as a mostly sweet and relatively tasty confection that's certainly easy to swallow. While it might not satiate those needing their fix of great culinary comedies, it is a pleasant enough diversion to warrant a passing grade. As such, "Chocolat" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 18, 2000 / Posted December 22, 2000

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