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Semisweet 'Chocolat'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000


    'Chocolat' Johnny Depp romances candywoman Juliette Binoche in "Chocolat."
I suppose a filmmaker can't go wrong with a movie about chocolate, can he? It's like making a film about oxygen, love or democracy. I mean, isn't everyone "for" chocolate? And wouldn't that make me the confectionary equivalent of a Grinch to say that Lasse Hallstrom's "Chocolat" didn't particularly engage my sweet tooth?

Set in France during the 1950s, the movie is about a single mother named Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), who breezes into the morally uptight town of Lansquenet to lease the local patisserie. But it doesn't sit well with the humorless Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) that she's opening a sinfully delicious chocolate shop, smack dab in the middle of Lent.

Her success is dramatic, thanks to an uncanny ability to find the perfect recipe for every customer. She slips a little chili powder into the chocolate drink of the dour Armande Voizin (Judi Dench) and makes a friend for life. Another Vianne concoction charges up one couple's sex life. And her confections even inspire a friendship with the sullen Josephine (Lena Olin) and induce the aged, shy Guillaume (John Wood) to finally court the woman (Leslie Caron) of his dreams.

Quite clearly, Madame Rocher is destroying (read: empowering) the emotional climate of this town. The lines to the confession booth are long these days. So Reynaud, a self-appointed guardian of morality, makes it his personal mission to run her out of business. And it doesn't help matters that Vianne offers him something called "Nipples of Venus" when he visits the store.

When Vianne befriends – and warms romantically to – a barge-dwelling gypsy and local pariah (the handsome, apparently bored Johnny Depp), the scheming politician practically declares war.

Binoche is almost industrially lovable. Molina and Dench are dutifully watchable. And Peter Stormare is occasionally inspired as a brutish husband who becomes a pawn in the comte's scheme. It's enjoyable to watch this dark, almost psychotic man undergo a fast reeducation in Scripture class, struggling to remember the three conditions for mortal sin under the pious gaze of a priest (Hugh O'Conor).

But these performances are simply not enough to deliver the movie to the level of "Like Water for Chocolate," "Babette's Feast" and other great movies about the magical connection between the gastronomic and the romantic or spiritual. Director Hallstrom, who also made "The Cider House Rules," directs this movie as if it's being made for public television rather than the big screen. I can only bestow this adaptation of Joanne Harris's bestselling novel with such faint praise as "pleasant" and "mildly disarming." If this movie were part of an assortment in a chocolate box, I wouldn't spit it into my napkin. But I wouldn't reach for it a second time, either.

"Chocolat" (PG-13, 121 minutes) – Contains urination, some strong language, mild sexual scenes and a little domestic assault and battery.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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