Eric D. Snider

Chocolat

Director Lasse Hallstrom's last project, "The Cider House Rules," was so desperately overrated that it's good to see his latest film, "Chocolat," turn out so light and frothy there's no way it can suffer the same fate. It will be more or less enjoyed by audiences, and then quickly forgotten.

Based on a novel by Joanne Harris, "Chocolat" is a fable set in 1959 in the picturesque little French village of Lansquenet. It's an old-fashioned place where everyone goes to church on Sunday and where the mega-pious nobleman Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) wields more power than the town's priest (Hugh O'Conor). (In one amusing sequence, the Comte ghost-writes the priest's sermons.)

Everything is calm, serene and inordinately Catholic until one Sunday, when a "clever northern wind" blows a woman and her young daughter into town. The woman is Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), a pretty woman of mystical original; her daughter is Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), a girl tired of living a gypsy's life with her rootless mother.

Vianne rents a shop from the town maverick, an independently minded old woman named Armande (Judi Dench). The shop becomes a chocolaterie (its decor described as "early Mexican brothel"), which proves to be ill-timed, due to the town's universally enforced observance of Lent. But once the days of abstinence are over, it's every bit the local hangout.

Predictably, this disturbs the Comte, who is opposed to anything new on the grounds that it will corrupt the people. Indeed, Vianne has a mysterious ability to divine people's favorite confections, and one chocolate even acts as a libido-enhancer. The Comte tries to turn the people against the shop, and also against the boat full of wanderers including one Vianne has a thing for, played by Johnny Depp) that floats by.

On the Comte's side is Armande's estranged and prissy daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss) and oafish bartender Serge (Peter Stormare). On Vianne's side is pretty much everyone else, most notably Serge's abused wife Josephine (Lena Olin).

I don't know whether it's intentional, but the basic plot is extremely reminiscent of "Mary Poppins," of all things. A strange woman of unknown origins literally blows in on the wind and instantly charms everyone she meets in a repressed society. She performs little acts of magic without fanfare and noses her way confidently into everyone's business, fixing marriages, repairing relationships and helping everyone see the light. Her chocolates, I'm guessing, each contain one spoonful of sugar.

The story is not meant to be taken literally, which one must keep remembering lest one be annoyed at the absurdity of certain events. Not quite as forgivable, however, is the film's over-simplified devices. When Serge roars that Josephine doesn't even know how to use a skillet, it is only a matter of moments before she conquers him by whacking him in the head with one. Since the film has a candy that increases your sex drive, and since the film also has a dog, one may predict with great certainty that one of them will eat the other.

That simplicity leaks into the film as a whole, too, which proves to be a good thing in the succinct way platitudes are spoken. "We can't go around measuring our goodness by what we DON'T do," someone says, tying everything up pretty nicely.

The performances are strong. Alfred Molina gives his Comte character more depth and complexity than the film deserves, and much more than the main character gets (though Juliette Binoche admittedly is an appealing star). Judi Dench (love her!), one of the great experts in making a supporting role seem like the lead, seems perfectly suited to play the rebellious senior citizen who doesn't care for the town's stick-in-the-mud attitude any more than Vianne does.

And let's not forget young Victoire Thivisol, who plays Anouk. At the age of 4, Thivisol played the title role in the French film "Ponette," a beautiful and uplifting story about a girl whose mother has died. (It was the "Life Is Beautiful" of the mid-'90s.) She became the youngest person ever to win the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival that year, and while her work in "Chocolat" is not extraordinary, it is better than most child actors can muster. The rest of the movie, well, it's nothing great. But keep an eye on those performers, because they're the best reason to keep watching.

Grade: B

Rated PG-13, very mild profanity, a brief bit of sexuality

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