Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp

To call this film sinfully delicious would be an obvious choice. It is, after all, about chocolate, delectable gourmet chocolates with a very impressive “yum” factor. To call it a delight is also quite easy, with its cast of exquisite beauties and talents, including Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Dame Judi Dench, Leslie Caron, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp. You could also say that it’s magical since the setting is a picture-postcard perfect little French countryside village circa 1959.

Yes, Chocolat is all those things and more. It’s a lovely romantic fable about a zesty and determined woman named Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her child Anouk who arrive in a tranquil little French town one winter, blown in on the mysterious North Wind. This small town, as you might imagine, is deeply rooted in tradition, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and each person knows his or her place in the community. It is run by the stalwart Mayor Reynaud (Alfred Molina) a frustrated, obsessed man who regularly tutors the town’s new young priest, Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor), into giving what he deems to be particularly appropriate sermans each Sunday, and everyone in town is expected to attend.

Vianne rents the old Patisserie shop from the cranky old Armande (Judi Dench) and within days has turned it into a scrumptuous chocolate shop, filled with every variety of sugary confection known to man. And with her uncanny ability to decide each customer’s peculiar needs or desires, Vianne tempts the villagers with her chocolate treats as a means to help them free themselves from tradition and denial.

But Vianne is met with distrust by many and downright hostility from the Mayor who is determined to shut her down. He is particularly incensed that she has chosen to open the shop during the holy days of Lent. He perceives her as evil, the devil himself, and forbids anyone from visiting the shop, going so far as to issue fire and brimstone sermans to the priest for recital each week.

But one by one, starting with the already free-spirited Armande, Vianne chips away the icy demeanor of some of the townspeople, particularly the abused Josephine (Lena Olin) and wins them over to chocolate pleasures, friendship and an open-mindedness that allows them to reject the ways of the past and treasure future prospects.

When a group of River people, led by the charming Roux (Johnny Depp), an Irish-accented Gypsy man, arrive in their boats for a respite, it is Vianne, herself an outsider, who welcomes them. She further earns the wrath of the Mayor and an ugly confrontation sets in. But in the end, Vianne and her daughter win over the people and discover they can finally forgo their wandering ways and settle in to a life and home that both crave so dearly.

Lotta says: This is a warm film filled with charm, winning humor and delicate performances. It’s directed by Lasse Hallström who directed last year’s “The Cider House Rules”. Story is adapted by Robert Nelson Jacobs from Joanne Harris’ novel. Also features: Carrie-Anne Moss as Caroline, Peter Stormare, Hugh Wood.

Reviewed 12/12/00.
The film has limited engagements beginning 12/15 for Academy Award consideration and will be released in January 2001.