Everyone who believes in the magical properties of chocolate, raise your hands. Okay, now those who believe that this most wonderful of products from the cocoa bean can affect your soul, your sense of well being, your sexuality, your peace of mind, raise your hands. For those whose hands didn't come up, director Lasse Hallstrom ("Cider House Rules", "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") has a movie for you, designed to convince you of all these things. And, with a cast led by the wonderful Juliette Binoche, he's either going to convince you or entertain you while trying.
Magical? Perhaps with a touch of the supernatural? How about this... One day, two red-caped figures appear in a small French village with a north wind at their backs. The elder of the two turns out to be Vianne Rocher (Binoche), a spiritual wanderer whose stock in trade is about to be tested. With her in tow is her fellow wanderer and young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) who is none too happy about the pattern of geographic upheavals that she's been born into.
By prior arrangement, the pair present themselves to Amande Voizin, (Judi Dench) the stubborn landlady of a dusty shop on the town's dreary main square, directly opposite the central nerve of the community, the church. Voizin, a humorless widow with a secret illness, accepts her tenant with a warning to keep things clean. Little is she prepared for the seemingly immediate transformation of her dusty property into a designer's chocolate shop that would be en vogue in the heart of Rodeo Drive (Beverly Hills, CA) or within the splendor of Sak's Fifth Avenue. You could eat off her floors.
This is not the last of the magic being proffered here. One of the shop's first visitors is the town's ill-willed, intolerant mayor (Alfred Molina as the town's pillar of rectitude and role model) who soon sets himself up as Vianne's leading enemy, castigating her publicly for offering her trifles from the devil during, of all times, lent.
Ignoring this threat, she soon demonstrates her "gift" of being able to pick the perfect chocolate to satisfy the palate and the personal needs of a succession of customers and free-loaders. In one case, it's an aphrodisiac to ignite passions that have been dormant between one couple; in another it moves an elderly suitor of an equally elderly widow (nicely limned by Leslie Caron) to declare his interest after 50 years of silent looks. The point of all this chocolate power seems more a matter of ministering to society than reaping profits, and, despite the rigorous church condemnations and limited budgets of the townsfolk, the shop is stubbornly, magically successful.
One of Vianne's most vulnerable charges is the battered wife, (a downtrodden, magnificent Lena Olin) and again the chocolate that proves ideal for her gives her the confidence and inner strength to leave her bullying old man who runs the local bar. Vianne proves her supernatural gifts by bringing her landlady into her fold and reuniting her with her grandson, a meeting that her uncompromising daughter (a severe but fascinatingly self-possessed Carrie Anne Moss) has forbidden. This brings the landlady into the chocolate fold which soon develops into a small band of town rebels.
A real rebel shows up in the form of Roux, an itinerant Irish rover (an utterly handsome, jovial and wise Johnny Depp) who moves his band of (cajun) music-loving gypsys from place to place along the river on his boat. He sets up camp on the public shoreline, moving the mayor-led town council to declare a boycott of him and his followers. You can imagine the kind of cameraderie that develops between him and the lone, alluring chocolatierre who is alone in welcoming him into her shop.
The forces of religious bias and intolerance feeding on its own self-denial develops into a dangerous attack that threatens lives before Vianne's magical elixir completes its work. The town's prejudice against anything that disturbs their "tranquility" and the ostracism they employ to combat it works darkly in the mind of Vianne, the mysterious wanderer whose past bears the earmarks of Greek tragedy.
"Chocolat" is this years "eating" movie, one in a line that includes such cuisine oriented films as 1994's "Eat Drink Man Woman", Stanley Tucci's 1996 winner, "Big Night", "Babette's Feast" (1987) and others. It is more than these others, though, in its hints of supernatural forces behind the ingredients and in how the effect of the main course on a community is also a nice metaphor for exposing the insidiousness of self righteousness in society.
It comes wrapped in the most delicious and colorful of fantasy packages. The art direction is splendid, the cinematography is among the best of the year, the costume design is colorfully appropriate and creative (especially in Depp's wardrobe). In all, a fine, non-threatening production, sparkling most in its brilliant ensemble cast. A sweet offering of entertainment for anyone, even for those who prefer creme brulee.
Estimated cost: $25,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $68,000,000.