Right from its storybook opening — the voice-over narration begins with “Once upon a time . . .” — Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat aims to beguile. Though a gray and somber sky hangs over the French village of Lansquenet on the eve of Lent, the promise of mischief and passions reborn is in the air as mysterious strangers Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), draped in bright-red hooded cloaks, arrive along with the North Wind. Even as the village‘s inhabitants listen to a church sermon on the virtues of denial — under the ever-watchful eye of the rigid and righteous mayor, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) — the strangers set about preparing the instrument of their release: a chocolate shop.

Based by screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs on the novel by Joanne Harris, Chocolat first positions Vianne as a quasi-mystical dispenser of pleasure as a form of psychic healing. Each of the handful of Lansquenet residents who come to the fore has resigned him- or herself to a seemingly inescapable despair, in keeping with the town’s enforced code of abnegation. Trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage, Lena Olin‘s free-spirited Josephine has become a withdrawn kleptomaniac. Denied by a disapproving daughter visitation rights to her grandson — a boy who expresses his own sadness through the morbid subjects of his sketchbook — Judi Dench’s libertine has become a crusty crank. Such responses to past traumas and ongoing emotional pain immediately link many of Chocolat‘s characters to the obese mother in Hallstrom’s What‘s Eating Gilbert Grape. Gradually, however, it is the wandering Vianne herself, as she carefully prescribes her intoxicating confections to the joy-starved townsfolk, who emerges as Hallstrom’s favorite kind of person: an eccentric soul in search of her place in a harsh world.

Gilbert Grape stands as Hallstrom‘s best English-language film (My Life as a Dog still holding its title as his best film, period) in part because he never underlines the big themes at work beneath its everyday — if awkwardly out-of-step — humanity. And so the film’s blending of warmth, humor and gravity never comes off as the precisely measured formula it really is. His The Cider House Rules, on the other hand, is as overstated and manipulative as American art-house cinema gets.

Chocolat falls in between. While there are scenes of wrenching emotional openness and spontaneous charm — largely due to the irresistible allure and impeccable craft of its ensemble cast — the degree of calculation apparent in its plot and images undermines its efforts to move and seduce. As a result, Hallstrom, who can usually be counted on to step back and give his actors the reins, here occasionally comes into conflict with them.

Throughout the film, the struggle between Vianne and the mayor, who wants to shut her down, follows a rigidly proscribed comic blueprint for battles between the passionate and the repressed. So much so that when de Reynaud finally confronts his own desires, the pent-up anguish that Molina pours forth so honestly only confused a screening audience, which kept laughing, having been conditioned to see him as a clown. It is a similarly by-the-numbers approach that keeps Hallstrom and cinematographer Roger Pratt from finding in their shots of Vianne‘s creations — as Alfonso Arau did with whole menus in Like Water for Chocolate — the liberating potential held within the exotic morsels. At one point, without Dench or Olin there to show us the confections’ transformative power through subtle and rapturous facial expressions, Hallstrom is reduced to obviousness, giving us a chocolate statue in the shape of Venus.

Ultimately, the big themes that Hallstrom forces into play through such tactics detract from and diminish the real heart of the film, which lies with Vianne and the relationships she forms with the women of the village. (A subplot affair with Johnny Depp as a smooth vagabond doesn‘t help, either.) That in the end Vianne contemplates the benefits of a settled domestic life only leaves one with a faint aftertaste, and the sense that her kitchen might come to symbolize something other than freedom.

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