"Chocolat," a sweet but forgettable concoction from director Lasse Hallström ("The Cider House Rules," "My Life as a Dog") may be the best example yet of an utterly mainstream story masquerading as art-house fare.
Hallström's latest is a food-and-romance flick built on a folkloric back story (albeit a hokey one, unlike the magical legend behind the similar "Like Water For Chocolate"). Set in France, "Chocolat" feels like a foreign film. Yet the members of its international cast speak English in a wide variety of French accents -- and in the case of a river rat played by Johnny Depp, in an iffy brogue. As adapted from the novel by Joanne Harris, the movie often comes off as a glorified sitcom, and vastly predictable.
Juliette Binoche, as warm and appealing as ever, is instantly likable as Vianne, proto-feminist free spirit who blows into the tiny, quiet community of Lansquenet one cold, wintry day in 1959. The single mom and her daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), are both dressed in bright red hooded coats, and their mission is easy to read: This footloose, bohemian duo is prepared to add a little color to a plain, emotionally and sexually repressed community of God-fearing folks. It's no coincidence that the newcomers' arrival coincides with Lent, the season during which all good believers are expected to abstain from sensual pleasures.
Tolerance -- a key theme in "Cider House" -- is the big issue here. Vianne immediately puts the town's most upright citizens to the test. The mayor, a cartoony type named the Comte de Reynaud and played to the hilt by Alfred Molina (doing a variation on his role as Snidely Whiplash in "Dudley Do-Right"), is the first city-father type to take offense at the very existence of the vivacious mother and too-cute daughter: In short order, Vianne informs him that there's no husband in the picture and never has been; that she's not a churchgoer; and that the business of her shop will remain a "surprise" until opening day. (That's probably not the course of action any Chamber of Commerce would recommend to newcomers in a business community.) The Comte takes umbrage, and immediately begins writing a letter to the newspaper -- a little diatribe about the importance of family and tradition.
Reynaud has barely put pen to paper when Vianne begins to earn the villagers' reserved affection. Her weapons of choice: The chocolate delights, spiced with traces of chili pepper, that she whips up at her shop. Josephine (Lena Olin), the slightly nutty wife of abusive barkeep Serge (Peter Stormare), falls under the spell of the store's proprietress. So do Vianne's grumpy landlord, Armande (Judi Dench), and the old woman's estranged grandson, Luc (Aurelien Parent Koenig). A budding romance is also fomented by the sweets, as Madame Audel (Leslie Caron), still mourning the loss of her husband in World War I, opens her heart to courtly suitor Guillame Bierot (John Wood).
Little by little, hearts and minds are being changed, setting the stage for a war between temperance and sensuality. The self-righteous Reynaud foments an attack on the stranger, who's lately been consorting with a handsome, dobro-playing itinerant traveler named Roux (Depp). At one point, the troubled Vianne is actually heard to declare, "It's not easy being different." No it isn't, which may explain why "Chocolat" instead settles for the comforting safety of familiar recipes.