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Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Producer: David Brown, Kit Golden, Leslie Holleran

Written by: Robert Nelson Jacobs, from novel by Joanne Harris

Cast: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Carrie-Anne Moss, Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Leslie Caron,

Rating: out of 5

I felt reassured when the film treatment of Joanne Harris' novel began "Once upon a time…" but the movie quickly dashed my hopes. Harris' amusing and sinister book, with its dark humor and bitter places, is a Grimm's fairy tale for adults. The movie has been Mother Goosed into cotton candy. Damned if I can fathom the reasons why.

Basically, this is the tale of Vianne Rocher (Binoche), who moves to the small village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolaterie across the square from the church smack in the middle of Lent. The righteous Comte de Reynaud (Molina) instantly sees creeping hedonism in this sweet shop, particularly after the proprietress politely explains that she does not attend church and that, despite the presence of a young daughter, she has never been married. These two engage in comic battle for the souls of the villagers.

Despite the Comte's warnings, made through his mouthpiece (the village's very young, impressionable priest) patrons soon flock to Vianne's shop. Their custom takes on a pseudo-sacramental aspect, as visitors reveal things about their lives and receive, if not absolution, confections. You have to wonder "Whatever does she put in those chocolates?" because the eager consumers soon find ways to transcend the limits of their lives.

The limitations of a movie, however, (if it has any kind of decent editing at all) make it impossible to allow Vianne to spend the time gaining people's confidence that the book does, and this is unfortunate. Though she is clearly a "good witch" in both book and movie, on-screen relationships simply form too fast. The movie also gives us a sort of French Grinch-the Puritanical Comte de Reynaud-whose negative attitudes toward gustatory pleasures would surely cost a Frenchman his citizenship.

CHOCOLAT is easy on the eyes. Binoche and Depp are pretty, pretty people and Carrie-Anne Moss turns out to bear a striking resemblance to Catherine Deneuve. Molina is fun to watch as the self-appointed morals police. Sadly, Dame Dench has substituted some sort of formalized ritual-crotchety and eccentric good-hearted old lady-for acting. Even worse, the movie reduces the story to such a simplistic conflict over whether pleasure is good or bad that it scarcely seems worth the telling.

Why move the story from the present day to 1959? Why create Messieur le Comte instead of keeping the book's adversary, the creepily obsessive village priest with a scandal in his past? Why create an exotic Mayan family history for Vianne? Why so much voice-over? Why use soft focus on Binoche, Olin, and Dench? They may not be young women, but, as the saying goes, they're each of them more lovely than the others.

Many viewers won't have read the book and won't be troubled by these questions, but believe you me, the book is mighty fine. Obviously the filmmakers thought highly enough of it to choose it for their movie, then they pissed all over it. For taking a pleasingly snarky little book and making it black-and-white, happily-ever-after, CHOCOLAT-a movie I've looked forward to for months, dammit-gets only 2.5 stars.

-Roxanne Bogucka, an Action Grrl!

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