Here is the original review from 2001 (now with actual paragraphs, which we didn’t have at the time): Charm is a delicate and usually very elusive thing — never more so than in the movies. Take it even slightly too far, and instead of the souffle attempted, the results are more like five pounds of sodden, indigestible Christmas fruitcake. However, director Lasse Hallstrom and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs have completely succeeded with Chocolat, an almost impossibly charming little fantasy. The film details what happens to the inhabitants of a small French village when a mysterious — and morally “incorrect” — woman, Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), and her brazenly illegitimate daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), fly in the face of convention (and business sense) by opening a chocolate shop there during Lent.
Basically, it’s a very old premise — the colorful outsider who brings life to a drab town — but in Chocolat, the theme is given new life, easily as bright as the red hooded cloaks in which our heroines arrive on the scene. Here is a film that knows both when to play to our expectations and when to delightfully surprise us. We know, for example, that Vianne’s effect on the village will ultimately be a miraculous transformation. If the film did not offer us that, we would be disappointed. We can fairly easily chart the various changes that will occur among the inhabitants along the way. Again, the film does not disappoint. In that respect, Chocolat gives us what we expect and want, and makes it all seem real and moving and fresh by the sheer creativity of the direction (there is not an ill-timed shot or a misjudged angle in the film) and the personalities of its characters. Then the film turns around and adds another layer to the standard myth by having the village and the people Vianne changed make an equal change in her. It all sounds far more simple than it is, and much of what is so special about Chocolat does not lend itself to analysis. In fact, deeply analyzing something this charmingly fragile might kill it.
Of course, a film of this type is utterly reliant on the skills of the actors, and Hallstrom has assembled what can only be called a dream cast. In addition to Binoche and Thivisol (who are both just right), the film offers positively luminous turns — often against type — from Lena Olin, Judi Dench, Carrie-Anne Moss, Alfred Molina, the legendary Leslie Caron, and last but far from least, Johnny Depp. Depp, who appeared earlier in Hallstrom’s quirky What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? perhaps came onboard as a favor to the director. More likely, this glorified supporting role was simply another of his unorthodox and constantly surprising career choices. Once again, Depp proves that he can do just about anything — even accept a small role; sport a believable Irish accent (though what a character named Roux is doing with an Irish accent is another matter, but the name is probably more symbolic than anything); and leave an indelible mark on a film that isn’t really his. At bottom, Chocolat is a beguiling little fable — and a perfect film for anyone who ever needed an imaginary kangaroo playmate to help them get by. See this wonderful movie and you’ll understand what I mean.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Chocolat Friday, June 5, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com