A film to awaken the senses and stimulate the sweet tooth, `Chocolat,' directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Juliette Binoche. is both a sensuous and sensational delight. In the mid 50s, as if borne on the winds of fate, a somewhat mysterious woman arrives in a small town in France, with a young daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) in tow and a special talent that soon has the townsfolk in quite a stir. Binoche is Vianne Rocher, a woman who uses her exotic recipe for chocolate to unlock the repressed sensibilities of the predominately Catholic citizenry, heretofore kept under the rigid and righteous thumb of the Mayor, Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), with no respite or help, even from the town's young and inexperienced priest, Pere Henri (Hugh O'Conor). And because Vianne has the audacity to open her chocolate shop during Lent, when of course her sumptuous treats are forbidden, she quickly runs afoul of the Mayor and a battle of wills between the two ensues. Her chocolates are irresistible, but the Mayor has tradition and religion on his side, and it puts the free-spirited Vianne-- who has something of the gypsy in her-- to the test. As a director, Hallstrom has just the right touch that brings out the best this story has to offer, which is to say, quite a bit. It's an affecting and funny movie that will touch you emotionally as it involves you with the characters; Hallstrom knows what buttons to push and when, and it works splendidly. There's a touch of mystery surrounding Vianne that underscores the sensitivity of the story, and Hallstrom never allows it to become maudlin, which successfully maintains the integrity of the drama. And there are moments throughout the film that evoke an almost dream-like sense of pacification that draw you in as you indulge in the mouth watering visual pleasures of the chocolate. Be forewarned, though, it's a tough one for diabetics to watch. What Hallstrom also has going for him in this one is an absolutely exquisite cast, many of whom give Oscar worthy, memorable performances, beginning with the superb Juliette Binoche. There's an earthy, enigmatic and classic sense of beauty about her that make her presence on screen captivating; she's simply a joy to behold. Judi Dench (Amande), meanwhile, does a terrific character turn as a mother whose daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), deems her an embarrassment and a bad influence on her son, Luc (Aurelien Parent-Koening), and Lena Olin (Josephine) is outstanding as well, as an unhappy woman who finds hope in Vianne's undaunted spirit. Three extraordinary performances from gifted actresses that should be recognized with Oscar nominations. And Molina, too, as the narrow minded Comte, gives possibly the best performance of his career, while Johnny Depp (Roux) lends some charm as the leader of a roving community of river people.
Rounding out the supporting cast are John Wood (Guillaume), Peter Stormare (Serge) and Leslie Caron (Madame Audel). Possibly the `sweetest' film of the year, as well as one of the best, `Chocolat' is a visual and emotional triumph that will warm your heart and make your taste buds salivate, with a story and characters as rich and satisfying as the candy they embrace. It's a film with a human touch whose images and sensitivity will remain with you long after the screen has gone dark; an uplifting, entertaining movie that proves that the answers to the mysteries of life just may be found in that box of chocolates, after all. I rate this one 10/10.