It is Lent in the tiny French village of Lansquenet, where the profoundly repressed nobleman Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) uses the church as a transmitter for his dull, gray personal code of temperance. Broadcasting his restrictive and dubious codes of morality through the green Père Henri (Hugh O'Conor), Reynaud has managed to alienate his wife into a permanent vacation in Italy, so -- in the manner of cruel, heartless Catholics the world around -- he has deemed it necessary for the entire town to suffer his self-imposed sensual exile.
Of course, a man of such strong convictions is bound to be taught a lesson, and Reynaud's arrives in the scarlet form of Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), a traveler carried into town on the capricious north wind. With her young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), and a wounded imaginary kangaroo in tow, the prematurely New Agey Vianne invades the town's 1950s consciousness with a profound and urgent desire to distribute her glorious chocolates. Renting out a dilapidated pâtisserie from a matriarchal libertine known as Amande (Judi Dench), she quickly sets about raising the villagers from their neurotic mires. Although some require little more than a cleverly packaged aphrodisiac, others, such as the battered Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin) and her deranged husband, Serge (Peter Stormare), find themselves at the center of an allegorical holy war, as Reynaud uses their marital strife to push his piety.
In addition to the eternally mourning widow Mme. Audel and her whimsical would-be suitor, Guillaume Bierot (John Wood), Vianne has extended her spell to young Luc (Aurelien Parent-Koenig), the talented grandson of Amande, estranged from his adoring grandmother by the cold edict of his mother, Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Anne Moss). Noting the violence and sadness the boy can scarcely conceal -- gifted at drawing, he limits his subjects to gory horrors and dead things -- Vianne encourages him to enjoy himself, to pursue his art and to enjoy a cup of cocoa, regardless of religious observations. In so doing, she crystallizes everything Reynaud finds vile about her -- the nerve of opening a chocolaterie during Lent! -- catalyzing a terribly obvious but no less satisfying transformation for all concerned.
Lensed with the essence of fable by veteran cinematographer Roger Pratt (best known for his work with Terry Gilliam) and richly scored by Rachel Portman (with assists from Presley and Satie), Chocolat creates and sustains an elegant timelessness that is all too rare in contemporary cinema. Whether one thinks of it as a Willy Wonka for big kids or a sweeter, much less bombastic companion piece to this year's similarly themed Quills (pugnacious priest vs. salacious sensualist), it's the sort of movie that politely enters a saturated marketplace and slowly establishes itself as a classic. Although it's generally as amiable as Hallström's take on John Irving's The Cider House Rules -- indeed, it has become easy to recognize the director's delicate stamp of small-town woes and wonders -- the effervescent tone of Chocolat's screenplay (by Robert Nelson Jacobs) allows it to escape feeling like a diluted adaptation of Joanne Harris' tender novel.
Performances are vibrant throughout, wisely tweaked just slightly over the top, with Binoche delivering her best work since Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy. No mean feat, that, because Vianne could have dissolved into a merry mush of gooey chocolates and even gooier spiritual platitudes. Because her character is torn -- aching to court the wind again yet tormented by the pain her wandering causes her daughter -- she is perfectly complemented by Johnny Depp as Roux, a "river rat" gypsy with a Dobro and a killer smile, a Bedouin with the emphasis on bed. His sly appraisal of the town's latent insanity ("There's a boycott against immorality, and I must respect that") lets us see Vianne as more than some Pollyanna peddler but as a woman with a crucial mission.
If Hallström has a problem with tone, it lies in his almost supernatural niceness. Although the subtlety of this battle between paganism and Christianity works in its favor -- Vianne simply views Easter as a fertility rite for the mother goddess -- this glad girl never reveals an ounce of bitterness or darkness to balance the Comte's. Thus what arrives onscreen is purely a man's feminism, simple and trite and beautiful and vital.