Published Dec 01, 2000"Chocolat" director Lasse Hallstrom's follow-up to "The Cider House Rules, is a quaint little fable about a mysterious mother/daughter team (Juliette Binoche, Victoire Thivisol) who blow into the quiet, conservative French village of Lansquenet and shake things up by opening a chocolate store during Lent. While some of the townspeople are won over by the magical chocolate concoctions made from ancient Mayan recipes, the pious town mayor Compte de Renaud (Alfred Molina) sees the store and its proprietor as a threat to the town's strict moral code and attempts to shut it down. The result is a pleasant but simplistic tale of a town liberating itself from religious repression and intolerance by giving themselves over to sensual pleasure and its uplifting effects.
The plot is undeniably lightweight, and is at its best when not taking itself too seriously. The film unfortunately gets bogged down in its heavy-handed underlying message of rebellion against self-denial, which seems to be presented as a much weightier and more radical an issue than it actually is. The key to this film's success lies not in its obvious moral stance, but in the likeable cast of quirky characters that populate the story. The characters' relationships are honest and well developed and the town's gradual transformation into the pleasure-seeking, life-affirming spirit that the movie celebrates is enjoyable to witness.
It certainly doesn't hurt either that "Chocolat"'s cast is chock full of extremely talented character actors. Besides Binoche and Molina, the film features Judi Dench as an aging libertine who is quick to champion the chocolate shop, Lena Olin as terrified woman escaping her abusive husband (Peter Stormare), and Johnny Depp as another ostracised newcomer to the town who wins the heart of Binoche's Vianne. The universally fine acting helps to elevate the material above its sometimes hackneyed nature, providing the rich characterisations that save this film.