- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

''Chocolat," a heavily tendentious confection, champions a benevolent nomad, sensualist and shopkeeper played by Juliette Binoche with a rather avuncular, auntie-knows-best emphasis.

This heroine, called Vianne Rocher, enters the strait-laced French village Lansquenet on "a sly wind from the north" and opens a chocolaterie on the town square.

Vianne is a veritable sorceress with exotic, homemade chocolates. She starts with a line of Better Sex morsels that do wonders for the initial test couple. After that, further demonstrations seem superfluous.

A demure widow called Madame Audel, played by Leslie Caron and destined to be matched up with John Wood as a shy bachelor called Guillaume Bierot, is entrusted with the most suggestive testimonial to a Vianne creation: "It melts ever so slowly on your tongue and tortures you with pleasure."

The exquisite torturer has a young daughter named Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), who seems a bit fey and complains of Mama's inability to settle down. Vianne's wanderlust is attributed to a grandmother of South American extraction during a flashback. This ancestor also passed down her secrets for lacing cacao with chili powder, evidently one of the keys to the extra special tang in Vianne's chocolates.

Although Vianne arrives somewhat in the manner of Mary Poppins, in what is purported to be 1960, the newcomer seems to anticipate much of the spirit of Haight-Ashbury, circa 1967-69. One of the suspicious townspeople repeats the rumor that Vianne might be "some kind of radical."

Vianne's first tough case is Judi Dench as an ailing curmudgeon called Armande. Also a landlord, the 70-year-old Armande rents Vianne the shop and permits herself to be plied with sweets — bad for a diabetic condition she conceals from the tenant. She also is comforted by meetings with a grandson, Luc (Aurelien Parent Koenig), who has a flair for morbid illustration.

Armande's widowed daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), is estranged from her mother and must be deceived about these get-togethers. But she is not forced to grovel in order to reconcile herself with Vianne's savory influence. That spectacle is reserved for the man Caroline presumably will wed.

That is Alfred Molina, the resident pious mayor and nobleman, Comte de Reynaud. His conventional attempts to encourage or coerce goodness by the community backfire so much that he ends up indulging a long night's chocolate debauch in Vianne's show window. This turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Miss Binoche and Lena Olin, the memorable romantic rivals of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," are reunited as a more muffled, lovelorn team in "Chocolate." Miss Binoche's character finds it necessary to offer shelter to the battered wife Josephine Muscat, whom Miss Olin portrays.

A failure does haunt Miss Fixit: She somehow fails to locate the chocolate-susceptible good side of Josephine's brutish spouse Serge, played by Peter Stormare.

Lest Josephine's gratitude for becoming both a boarder and apprenctice chocolate-maker be misconstrued, the filmmakers promptly float Johnny Depp onto the scene. A vagabond and troubadour called Roux, he charms Vianne onto his houseboat at the earliest opportunity.

Director Lasse Hallstrom, descending into a total swoon after his admirable direction of "The Cider House Rules" a year ago, can't seem to fake a plausible sense of struggle between faultless Vianne and her token adversaries in the village. Capitulation is clearly the path to salvation, so it seems rather mean to make examples of slow learners such as Comte de Reynaud and Serge.

Why not admit that the fix is in, shamelessly? The filmmakers could content themselves with observing strictly humorous or pixilated variations on village-wide infatuation with Vianne and her scrumptious goods. For example, Josephine appears to get in a promising double-entendre mood when teasing a customer: "I have a very nice truffle here, if he'd like to try it."{*}1/2TITLE: "Chocolat"RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence)CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris. Cinematography by Roger Pratt. Production design by David Gropman. Costume design by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Music by Rachel Portman. Chocolate expert: Walter Bienz.RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

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