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Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp think of chocolate nipples and can't help but smile.

2001, Miramax
All Rights Reserved

Chocolate apparently is what makes the world go round, or so director Lasse Hallström tries to convince audiences with his latest cinematic endeavor, "Chocolat" (IMDb listing).

It is the story of Vianne Rochert (Juliette Binoche) and her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), who arrive in a small, drab French town in the winter of 1959 and open a chocolaterie (a gourmet chocolate shop). Here Vianne sells any number of delectable chocolate concoctions, including the house specialty: Hot chocolate with a dash of chili pepper and a spoonful of whipped cream, prepared from a 3,000-year-old Mayan recipe and supposed to bring out a person's most secret dreams and desires. Vianne, Anouk, and the chocolaterie quickly stir up the uneventful lives of the townspeople, and become a nuisance in the eyes of the town's equivalent of a mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). The Comte maintains order by instilling a constant fear of God and need for repentance in the citizens of his town. Vianne's unconventionally forward manner in dealing with her customers, her polite refusal to participate in Sunday mass, and the fact that on the first day of lent she begins to sell indulgence incarnate, does not bode well in the Comte's estimation and he is determined to put a stop to the chocolate-covered corruption.

The premise of "Chocolat" is promising, and Swedish-born Hallström, who has credits such as the appealingly unusual "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Cider House Rules," creates a beautiful framework with carefully designed and purposefully used visuals and a rousing soundtrack. But the story takes predictable turns, relies heavily on well-known movie clichés, and follows too many subplots, failing to fully explore any of them and neglecting to tie them together in a logical way.

There are glimpses of many great performances in "Chocolat," most notably Binoche and Johnny Depp as Roux, an Irishman and self-proclaimed river rat who lives with his people on a boat, moving from one place to the next. Judi Dench is equally impressive as Amande Voizin, Vianne's landlady and a diabetic with a penchant for the hot chili pepper chocolate. Lena Olin's Josephine Muscat goes through a rather odd transformation from town nutcase to battered wife to chocolatier par excellence. But again Hallström stanches the film's potential. He doesn't allow any character enough screen time to deliver a full-fledged, well-rounded performance. The ending is unsatisfactory because when the credits roll it is rather unclear how the plot got there. The viewer is left with the distinct impression that everything was resolved just by eating massive amounts of chocolate.

"Chocolat" is enjoyable entertainment for longtime Depp fans (only patient ones though, since he doesn't appear until the second half of the movie) who have come to love his knack for picking roles for the appeal of the character and independent of the project's bankability. Likewise, fans of Binoche will see the hint of a mature actress whose range could have been developed if guided by the right director. But this movie will not appeal to a general audience looking to spend an enjoyable couple of hours with popcorn and a soft drink. The story is disjointed. Watching it is a painstaking effort to connect hundreds of pieces in a jumbled puzzle.

Filmfodder Grade: C

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