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Film Review: Chocolat

By Simma Park

Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp in  Chocolat

Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp in Chocolat

Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin in Miramax's Chocolat
Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin

Alfred Molina and Carrie-Anne Moss
Alfred Molina and Carrie-Anne Moss

Photos courtesy of Miramax

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NEW YORK, 16 February 2001 - It's rare that a movie delivers exactly what its PR promises, but Miramax's latest "middlebrow" drama, manages to do just that. Moviegoers who suddenly missed the rash of feel-good food-centered dramas of the mid-'90s and ran out to see Chocolat more than likely left the theater entirely satisfied. Chocolat serves up the warm fuzzies: a skillful blend of wholesome sensuality, fairytale magic, and easy pathos.

Juliette Binoche brings her lovely emotional translucence to Vianne Rocher, a free-spirited drifter who travels from town to town and opens a chocolaterie everywhere she stays. In the winter of 1959, she and her illegitimate daughter blow into a French village whose deeply Catholic residents at first shun the single mother who has dared to open a chocolate shop with the shamelessly pagan name Chocolaterie Maya just as Lent's forty days of deprivation and denial have begun. In fact, the residents of the town, used to suppressing their passions and keeping up appearances, are living in a state of perpetual Lent imposed upon them by the town's morally rigid mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). The daughter of a French apothecary and a Mexican mystic, Vianne has inherited a gift for making chocolate that, like a drug, thaws the coldest of hearts and helps people discover - and nurture - long-buried desires. Won over by Vianne's warmth and her delectable bonbons, the townspeople begin to accept her and her shop.

When a boatload of guitar-playing, folk-dancing French-Irish river wanderers--in spirit half-gypsy, half proto-hippie - decide to stop over on the town's riverbanks, Reynaud vows to cleanse the town of such forces of disorder and temptation. He tries to turn the townspeople against the Chocolaterie Maya and the river people. Vianne teams up with Roux, the riverboat's handsome captain (Johnny Depp), her crotchety but surprisingly progressive landlady (Judi Dench), and the local crazy lady (Lena Olin) to wage a gentle war against the town's dour intolerance.

No, Chocolat isn't the most original of movies. It poses absolutely no aesthetic or intellectual challenges, and, except, perhaps, to extremely orthodox Catholics, it is completely free of controversy. The story is heartwarming, the sets and costumes are suitably quaint and are used to full advantage by the pretty cinematography, and the melodic soundtrack is stirring. In fact, Chocolat is easier to consume than a box of chocolates, which at least offers the occasional brittle or hard nut.

Yet Chocolat is not a boring film, thanks largely to Lasse Hallström masterful direction. As in previous films (My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules), he creates characters who seem more human than human. He generously emphasizes the quirky and sympathetic aspects of even the film's most unpleasant figures. Though the fate of each of Chocolat's characters is apparent almost from their first appearance, watching their emotional progress throughout the film is enjoyable enough to counteract their predictability.

Though their roles are hardly taxing, the actors avoid laziness and give earnest performances. Alfred Molina (Magnolia, Enchanted April) is terrific as the misguided but essentially well-intentioned mayor, and Dench is enormously likeable. Depp and Binoche have good chemistry and make a fabulously beautiful on-screen pair. Lena Olin (Oscar-nominated for Enemies, A Love Story), who always exudes an emotional intensity, is perhaps the closest thing to a surprise in Chocolat. Watching her cowed, broken Josephine, an abused housewife, bloom into a tentatively joyful, ultimately strong character is a pleasure. Other strong performances include John Wood (An Ideal Husband, The Madness of King George) as an elderly gentleman who awkwardly tries to woo an older widow who has been in mourning for her husband for over 40 years, and Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) as a frigid widow and overprotective mother who clings to the grim security of a life without risks or pleasure.

This film is ideal for people who find themselves needing a 120-minute vacation to a world where everyone is likeable and all things end as they should. Hallström is so good at his job that not a single "off" moment mars the film's good-natured charm. Even the barely French accents intended to signify that the characters are actually supposed to be speaking in French-a trick that usually galls - fits in with the movie's fairytale tone.

True, Chocolat may as well have been titled Like Water for Chocolat for all its originality, but it's one of the best examples of its genre. Though unworthy of its Oscar buzz, its unabashed pleasantness and eagerness to please coaxed three stars out of this viewer.

Three stars.

Simma Park is a writer and designer living in New York.

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