Factory-sealed to preserve freshness, Chocolat is the season’s latest Euro-synthetic confection, manufactured from a proprietary recipe based on focus-group data about what consumers enjoy most in a Miramax movie. Preferences, apparently, point to pretty costumes from a past era, pretty scenery, and a pretty, sexy-but-not-too-sexual woman — she could be foreign! — whose sensual zest inspires her uptight neighbors to unscrunch their orifices.
Chocolat obliges popular taste; to resist is not worth the principle since, unless you’re allergic to cocoa or butterfat, it’s as agreeably sweet as advertised, with a particularly yummy performance by Juliette Binoche (lusciously pretty and French and a 1997 Oscar winner for her role in the Miramaximized adaptation of The English Patient). Based on a novel by Joanne Harris and directed by Lasse Hallstrom with the same marzipan glaze he applied to The Cider House Rules, the magical fable stars Binoche as Vianne Rocher, a mysterious single mother who, with her young daughter, Anouk (Ponette star Victoire Thivisol), blows into a chilly, pinched, starvingly pious French village one windy 1950s day. Vianne’s specialty is making chocolate, and the mother and daughter set up shop, both ablaze in brilliantly colored dresses that stand out among the drab locals. Of course, anyone who tastes a morsel — braving the disapproval of the town’s prissy, sanctimonious leading citizen (Alfred Molina) — emerges liberated, aroused, hot to trot. You can see the battle lines forming immediately between those like the local priest (Hugh O’Conor) who struggle to abstain for heaven’s sake and those who prefer to indulge on earth. And you can anticipate the fates of the various acolytes from the first nibbles — the outspoken old grandma (Judi Dench) on the outs with her disapproving adult daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss), the pre-feminist wife (Lena Olin) who feels caged in an abusive marriage to a brutish café owner (Peter Stormare), the dotty old pensioner (John Wood) afraid to court a dotty old widow (Leslie Caron).
By the time Johnny Depp shows up, as a sexy vagabond who samples Vianne’s wares, you can amuse yourself by licking all the other foodie movies that are just like this one off your fingers, then picking up a scrumptious conglomerate-made bag of M&M’s as a souvenir on your way out: Both melt upon ingestion. B-