Twice As Sweet As Sugar

Once upon a time, in 1959, in the pious, picturesque and puritanical French town of Lansquenet, a mysterious woman and her daughter, cloaked in red, blew into town on the wake of a north wind. The woman, Vianne (Juliette Binoche), opens a chocolaterie, and her rich, sweet confections, containing magical aphrodisiacal qualities, unlock the pent-up desires and appetites of the townsfolk, pitting the forces of liberation against the forces of repression, and bringing down the wrath of the rigid, powerful Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), upholder of the town's stuffy traditional values.

The ingredients of "Chocolat," director Lasse Hallstrom's fanciful and stylish fable, could have been mixed in 1959, when artists declared open season on uptight conformists and the world began to let down its hair in preparation for the oncoming '60s. Amazingly, decades after the sexual revolution, these old battles seem to have acquired a new resonance. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Like the edgier "Quills" (also set in the land Americans have always associated with sexual liberty), "Chocolat" is a seriocomic plea for tolerance, gift-wrapped in the baby blue colors of a fairy tale and served up with a sybaritic smile.

The moral argument may be pat and predictable, but the movie disarms you with its charm and its solid craftsmanship. In more vulgar hands, "Chocolat" could have been insufferably precious, or smug, or sentimental. But Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog," "The Cider House Rules") has always had a delicate touch, not to mention the old-fashioned virtue of good taste. He also has an extraordinary cast at his disposal, including Judi Dench as a crusty 70-year-old lotus eater, Lena Olin as a terrorized wife who finds refuge at the chocolaterie, Peter Stormare as her alcoholic fool of a husband, Leslie Caron as a widow who's been in mourning for 40 years and Johnny Depp as a dashing Irish vagabond with as big a case of wanderlust as Vianne. Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs, adapting a 1999 novel by Joanne Harris, keeps the whimsy rooted in real emotions, and wisely allows even the control-freak Comte his humanity. There's a touch of "Babette's Feast" here, a soupcon of "Like Water for Chocolate" and some old spices that might remind you of the plays of Jean Anouilh and Jean Giraudoux. However familiar, the taste is still sweet, the texture light as a souffle, the sentiments pleasantly high caloric.

Opens Dec. 15