Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 Hours and 1 Minute

Reviewer: Jones
Grade: B+

Over the past year or so I have made no secret about my admiration of director Lasse Hallstrom’s breathtaking “The Cider House Rules”. The visual splendor coupled with the immeasurable talents of the cast made it one of those rare films that is unforgettable for all the right reasons.

So why am I only getting around to reviewing his most recent film, “Chocolat”, now? I suppose there are a number of reasons for my insolence. First of all, there is no Charlize Theron. Secondly there is no Tobey Maguire. Thirdly, after hearing the basics of the plot, I just didn’t care. Then, a week ago, I met a man who spoke very passionately about the film. He told me of the little details of the film. The things that would make me want to see it, so to speak. So now I sit here, having seen it, and I can most definitely say that it did not deserve all of those nominations and it is nowhere near being in the same league as “The Cider House Rules”, but it is a delicious little entertainment that deserves to be thought of as a good movie and not some overdone Oscar hopeful.

Life is nothing but routine and monotony for the residents of the small French town that is the focus of the film. Everyone goes to church, women obey their husbands, and the sun rises and sets on their gloomy world. Then one day a woman named Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her confused daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) come to town and life will never be the same for the residents of the town. She seems harmless enough, but then she opens a chocolaterie during Lent, which the town’s sanctimonious mayor (Alfred Molina) views as a form of sacrilege. When he finds out that she will not be attending Church, he decrees the pleasures that her chocolate provides to be the work of the devil himself.

It seems she is fighting a losing battle against the stuffy “status quo” mentality that pervades the town when her service begins to find an audience. It is the finding of this audience that provides a great deal of the film’s humor. Long dormant passions are re-ignited for one couple. A shy man is given the resolve to ask a woman he has long admired to go out with him. A bitter old woman (Judi Dench) is given the chance to enjoy life once again. And, on the more serious side, a woman finds the will to leave her abusive husband. All of these wonderful moments are provided by Vianne’s chocolates, which makes her the talk of the town and helps to create a division in the town between the purists and those who long for a little more out of life.

I know it all sounds quite cheesy, but it is done with enough flair and validity to make it as plausible as most anything else one ever sees in the cinema. The film has the same lush visual stylings of its predecessor “The Cider House Rules”. Colors are used with great effect throughout the course of the film, as the tiny little town transforms from a dank, dreary burg to the sort of place you might expect to see in a Norman Rockwell painting. The cinematography captures all of this by merely taking it all in, rather than using flashy gimmicks and trickery to get its points across. Vianne’s concoctions come alive through the lens in such a manner that one cannot help, but salivate if they happen to be a chocolate lover. It’s probably a good thing that I know of no chocolateries in my area, otherwise I imagine I would be quite broke if I had the means to sample the exquisite delights brought to mouthwatering fruition by Vianne.

As would be expected from the fine ensemble cast, the performances are all delectable as well. Above all Juliette Binoche and Alfred Molina in the roles of Vianne and the mayor respectively are especially noteworthy. Juliette shows that she didn’t become an Academy darling for no good reason. She takes what on paper surely looked to be a rather thin role and made it quite complex. The layers that lurk beneath the surface of her strong-willed character’s thick skin are slowly peeled away over the course of the film to reveal a vulnerable, yet motivated, woman with more knowledge than her years should allow. In comparison, Molina (“Magnolia”) was dealt an incredibly complex hand as well. His character has morals that would make Christ proud, but that is the only reason he has them. This is not him and you see it in Molina’s eyes and actions. His wife is on an extended vacation that it quickly becomes apparent, will never end and he is unable to come to grips with this. It is for this reason that he forces his blindly chosen ideology upon the hapless residents of his town. It is for this reason that Vianne could not have come along at a better time.

In addition to the two top shelf performances are a number of well-rounded supporting roles. Judi Dench (“Goldeneye”) delivers her typical fine performance as the bitter old woman given a new lease on life. I still am unsure of how she got nominated, but then some things are better left unresolved. Peter Stormare (“Fargo”) turns in another solid performance to add to his repertoire as the abusive husband who pushes his wife too far. It’s good to see this man getting more and more quality roles, because he is as dependable as it comes in Hollywood. Lastly, Johnny Depp (“Ed Wood”) gives an assured performance as a social outcast, who makes his home on a boat and travels the waterways of France with his fellow outcasts (referred to as the “river rats” by the townspeople). His is the role that is able to unlock the doors within Vianne, so that she might be able to find what she truly desires from life, since that is what she helps others do all day long. One cannot help but respect Depp. He has been a heartthrob ever since the days of “21 Jumpstreet” over a decade ago, but he has never chosen to take the easy path throughout his career. He has consistently taken difficult and obscure roles throughout his career. The sort of roles that, I imagine, would make it difficult for anyone who doesn’t keep up on their movies to name anymore than three movies that he has been involved in.

Thanks to its exquisite visual style and fine performances, “Chocolat” is a film worthy of anyone’s time who is willing to give it. It does go a little overboard at times in getting the points it wishes to deliver across to the viewer, as well as possibly being a wee bit too long, but overall it has a good message and does a fine enough job in delivering it.

“Chocolat” is a deliciously surprising entertainment that offers a lot more food for thought than what would normally be expected of what passes for comedy these days. Recommended to those who expect a little more for their comedic dollar.