January 7, 2001 -- "Chocolat," as its name suggests, is a movie about that sugary confection that holds a special place in the hearts of the fairer sex, but this is no ordinary chocolate. It has strange, magical powers.
If you are a chocolate lover, you might want to stock up before you sit down to see this film, or you will suffer from chocolate cravings. It all begins in a quaint French town named Lansquenet, where life is stagnant. One day the sly north wind blows in a couple of visitors, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche of "The English Patient") and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol).
The two set up a chocolaterie in a shop owned by a 70-year-old woman, Armande (Judi Dench of "Shakespeare in Love"). Armande's decision to rent the shop is to the dismay of her estranged daughter Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Anne Moss). Caroline won't let Armande visit her son, Luc Clairmont (Aurelien Parent-Koening), but Vianne finds a way around that restriction. Also drawn to the shop is Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin of "The Ninth Gate"), who wants to leave her brutal husband, Serge, (Peter Stormare of "Armageddon"). Soon, the mayor of the town, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina of "Magnolia"), decides that Vianne is the enemy, and he tries to drive her out of town. Further complicating matters is the arrival of gypsies, led by Roux (Johnny Depp of "Sleepy Hollow").
The war of wills between Reynaud and Vianne starts because Vianne opens her chocolaterie during lent, a time of religious fasting. Both Reynaud and Vianne are very stubborn when it comes to their convictions. Reynaud wants to restore his kind of order in the town and Vianne wants to operate without interference. A local priest is brought into the conflict, although he would just as soon steer clear of it.
The whole matter is a kind of tempest in a teapot, except there are some serious undertones in the story. Serge beats his wife and there is ethnic hatred of the gypsies by the townspeople. Vianne becomes a kind of healer and her shop becomes a kind of female commune, offering refuge to those who have suffered because of hatred or intolerance. Her healing arts, handed down from her Central American ancestors, work wonders, but they can't heal her own heart.
Vianne is under a kind of curse. She is never able to put down roots and belong anywhere. She has a wanderlust that arises periodically when the north wind blows. Will she be able to overcome it this time? Who will win the battle between Vianne and Reynaud? There are some delicious ironies in the answers. This is a very lighthearted and enjoyable movie with great acting and a very good original music by Rachel Portman. The cinematography by Roger Pratt is also quite good. Director Lasse Hallström shows the same kind of technical and emotional mastery he demonstrated in last year's "The Cider House Rules." This film rates an A.
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