A fanciful fairy tale for grown-ups, "Chocolat" takes place in a sleepy French village, circa 1959, and stars Juliette Binoche as a nomadic confectioner of sublime candy delicacies whose arrival -- just as Lent has begun -- stirs curiosity, gossip and scornful disdain among the locals.
Happy-go-lucky in the face of adversity and apparently a boat-rocker by nature, she sets up shop practically across the street from the church, providing almost cruel temptation to a population observing 40 days of fasting and penitence.
But the influence of the chocolaterie and its proprietor soon extends beyond simple taste bud enticement. Her enchanted chocolates and therapeutic personality have soon rekindled the marriage of a local couple, returned a smile to the face of her cantankerous landlady (Judi Dench), and inspired an abused wife (Lena Olin) to leave her husband (and come work for Binoche). This disruption in the status quo ruffles the feathers of the zealous and austere local nobleman (Alfred Molina), who considers the chocolate shop to be the work of the devil and sets his mind to seeing Binoche run out of town for interrupting the village's static tranquility.
It is implied that Binoche and her chocolate concoctions stir up this kind of trouble everywhere she goes -- which is, in part, why she and her young daughter (Victoire Thivisol, "Ponette") have moved from town to town. But director Lasse Halstrom ("The Cider House Rules") also builds a myth around her, providing backstory about her apothecary father who traveled to Central America to study indigenous medicine and fell in love with a Mayan woman powerless against her hereditary wanderlust.
Having been nomadic her whole life, it's natural that Binoche soon becomes the only villager to welcome a band of river gypsies that anchors on the outskirts of town, provoking more distrust and trouble -- and bringing a romance for our heroine in the form of steel guitar-plucking Johnny Depp.
Binoche ("The English Patient," "Alice et Martin") is winning in the lead, capturing her character's warm eccentricity. But the slight, knowing smirk she wears throughout the picture -- as if she knows an amusing secret she refuses to tell -- speaks to the overall atmosphere of the film, which seems awfully pleased with itself for such frivolous, predictable fare.
Halstrom infuses "Chocolat" with an esoterically poetic quality, but there's a smugness in the way he directs the story, as if he's looking down on the townspeople as a mostly fatuous lot that needs a free spirit like Binoche to loosen their shackles of tradition.
Consequently, Molina is almost as much of a cartoon villain here as he was playing Snidley Whiplash in last year's "Dudley Do-Right" movie. And his character is indicative of the movie's larger problem: It's full of capricious clichés that are overcome only by the film's more splendid performances.
Dench is a delight, confessing her heart to Binoche one moment, then barking that it's none of her damn business the next. Carrie-Anne Moss (in a broad departure from her sexy neo-feminists in "The Matrix" and "Red Planet") makes a strong impression as Dench's estranged, piously moralistic and overprotective daughter, who has forbidden her son to see his grandmother. Hugh O'Conor is a bit of comic relief as the young, very green new priest with a jones for American rock'n'roll, but without the courage to stand up to the domineering Count, who leans on the clergyman to preach against Binoche and her tantalizing sweets.
Depp, whose role is relatively small, gives an excellent performance as the vagabond Irish charmer who meets his match in Binoche.
Even though "Chocolat" flirts with overtly heart-plucking tragedy in the last act, the picture has an ethereal ambience about it that many will find enchanting enough to forgive its shortcomings.
But from its once-upon-a-time opening voice-over that describes how the village's stoic tranquility existed "Until one day a sly wind blew in from the North..." the movie is just a bit too concocted to truly transport a viewer the way Halstrom intends.