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Chocolat (PG-13)

Unlike many people I know, I am not a big chocolate fiend. I'm usually willing to wait for a really fine morsel of Lindt or Cadbury's or Perugina to pass my way, rather than dive into a Hershey's bar. On the other hand, I'm willing to concede that M&M's and other pedestrian chocolates have their place: They're sweet, not overly strong, and can be consumed in mass quantity when the situation demands (think breakups, telephone calls with your mother, PMS).

Chocolat is like that dime store chocolate. This latest endeavor by director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, Cider House Rules) is a charming little movie that can nicely fill your moviegoing docket until you have a shot at the real stuff. It follows the story of Vianne (Juliette Binoche), a free-spirited single mother who, along with her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) blows into a small French town in the 1950s.

The good citizens of the town are observing Lent even as Vianne sets up a chocolaterie immediately opposite the doors of the gloomy stone church. The town's mayor (Alfred Molina), the most abstemious of the lot, is shocked at the brazen sensual, atheistic ways of Vianne, and sets about trying to turn the town against her and her chocolates.

Things are only made worse by the arrival of Roux (Johnny Depp), a dobro-playing gypsy character, whose merry band sets up camp along the banks of the town's river and flouts the conventions of the narrow-minded townspeople.

There's plenty to like in Chocolat. What first comes to mind is the food photography, although I never thought I would write those words. Still, the images of luscious hot chocolate made from a thick dark cocoa and finished off with Chantilly cream set up a lot of lip-smacking in the theater. And the long sequences of stirring, molding, sculpting and eating the delicious candies, cakes and confections were enough to induce sympathetic insulin incidents.

The actors in the film were also quite delightful, if cast and costumed in the most stereotypical melodramatic ways. The bad-guy mayor does everything but twirl his mustache to show how bad he is, and Vianne never wears anything but red shoes to show her sensual side. Despite these excesses, and some very silly French accents, the acting is good. Depp is delicious as the romantic leading man, Judi Dench is her usual subtle and magnificent self as a crotchety landlady and abandoned grandmother, and Carrie-Anne Moss radiates betrayal and hurt as her widowed daughter.

Overall, like the novel by Joanne Harris on which the film was based, there's not a lot to dislike about Chocolat. If the movie neither asks nor answers many interesting questions, if it is a little shallow in its charm, if it shies away from places it really might go, well, too bad. Like the common Hershey's bar, it can be an acceptable stand-in until the good stuff comes along.

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