Chocolat: Hallstrom’s Best Picture Oscar Nominee (One of the Worst), Starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp

Chocolat, Lasse Hallstrom’s new movie, has the bitter-sweet flavor of a candy that’s not fresh but still desirable. This mythic fable, really a fairy tale, blends together eccentric characters, small-town intrigue, compassionate humor, and sexy food to mixed results.

Structured as a serio-comic confection, the film boasts a superlative international cast, including, among others, French Juliette Binoche, British Judi Dench, American Johnny Depp, Swedish Lena Olin, not to speak of its distinguished Swedish director, still best known for his Oscar nominee, My Life as a Dog.

The whimsical story is set in the 1950s in the French village of Lansqenet, a conservative place where life has not changed for at least a century. The first visual image is both striking and magical: a young woman, Vianne Rocher (Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Ponnette’s Victoire Thvisol) are seen walking toward town, while the winds are blowing hard. Both are dressed in red coats, the meaning of which becomes clear later in the saga. An outsider par excellence, Vianne plans to open a chocolaterie filled with irresistible confections, suited to the idiosyncratic tastes of the town’s diverse residency.

As expected, the chocolaterie signals Trouble, and soon Vianne develops the reputation of a “sorceress,” a woman who offers candies that not only awaken the townspeople’s hidden appetites, but also reignite and fulfill their subconscious dreams and private desires.

Among the villagers influenced by Vianne are Armande (Judi Dench), a sickly 70-year-old libertine, whose estranged daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), would not let her socialize with her grandson. Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin) is a long-suffering matron, married to a brutish husband, Serge (Peter Stormare), who beats her. Seeking solace and refuge, Josephine ends up being Vianne’s assistant at the shop and intimate confidante.

Then there’s Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the righteous local nobleman who’s convinced that Vianne’s sumptuous chocolat will wreak havoc with the town, undermining his strictly imposed code of ethics. The Compte emerges as the “villain” of the piece, engaged in a battle of wills with Vianne. Their animosity and eventual confrontation go beyond personal differences: They represent a clash between those who wish to keep tradition the same way it has been and those who side with Vianne, reveling in their newly-discovered freedom.

The central acts chronicle how Vianne ends up having a profound effect on each and every resident. Since this is a romantic fable, the love interest is provided by another unusual outsider, Roux (Johnny Depp, born to play such roles), a riverboat traveler whose function is to awaken Vianne’s secret desire as a woman.

Thematically, Chocolat is linked to the far superior Like Water for Chocolate. Both pictures are based on popular novels, both rely on the erotic appeal of food–and both are released by Miramax. Other than that, Chocolat is not a particularly strong addition to the increasingly large number of films about food and sex (or rather, food as sex), among them Babette’s Feast, Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Big Night.

I haven’t read Joanne Harris’s novel, but my feeling is that screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs has taken liberties to accommodate the story to Hallstrom’s distinctive sensibility. Critics have used quirky, offbeat, eccentric to describe Hallstrm’s unique mixture of the grave and the joyful in his films. My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (also with Johnny Depp) and last year’s The Cider House Rules all celebrated a family or community of misfits, while stressing the wonders of life’s tragicomic weirdness, the existence of humanity in the least likely places.

In Chocolat, Hallstrom mixes again the bizarre and the normal, the dramatic and the comedic, but this time around, it’s strenuous effort and the seams show. Trying to be stylish and magical, Chocolat instead comes across as a manufactured crowd-pleaser with something for everyone: hopeful romantics, lonely children, cranky old-timers, abused wives, and even repressed priests.

Hallstrom’s films have specialized in disorderly clans that feed off their own lunacy and solidarity. I admired his refusal in Cider House Rules to portray the orphans as precocious or idealized. However, tough-minded though he may want to be, at heart Hallstrom was also sentimentalist–unfortunately, in Chocolat, the sentimentality is too obvious and manipulative.

Even so, Hallstrom has always been good with actors, and Chocolat is no exception. The enormously appealing Binoche (Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient) heads a felicitous and inspired ensemble that keeps the film’s frivolous energy high. As the title suggests, Chocolat may not offer a solid meal, but it certainly qualifies as a fluffy dessert.