& & by Ray Pride & & & &

It's so tempting and so sad to consider the latter-day career of Swedish-born director Lasse Hallstrom as "My Life as a Hack."

While I don't treasure his second feature, My Life as a Dog, the way some do, it remains one of the handful of great films about the melting away of adolescence and the disillusionment that comes with growing up. In recent years, Hallstrom has struggled to retain his loving, observant style through movies like Cider House Rules. I haven't watched What Happened to Gilbert Grape?, which starred Johnny Depp and a very young Leonardo di Caprio, in a long time, but I recall its household of peculiar characters as worthy of revisiting.

With Cider House Rules and Chocolat, however, it's becoming more a life of dogs. Adapted by Robert Nelson Jacobs from Joanne Harris's popular novel, Chocolat is a too-domesticated tale of social and sexual tolerance. It functions best as a showcase for marvelous performances by more than half a dozen actors, including Juliette Binoche, wispy as the exotic chocolatier who wafts into a provincial French village in the late-1950s. Entering the town with her small, illegitimate daughter in matching Little Red Riding hoods, bearing the gospel of chili-inflected sweets, she represents... something. The enigma of mature female sexuality? The threat of mature female sexuality? The loneliness of knowing oneself truly? The threat of outsiders polluting the customs of a small town?

Her chief antagonist is Alfred Molina, a trim cartoon as the count who is mayor of the small town, resenting her shop opening in the middle of Lent. Molina is precise in his potentially mustache-twirling role, yet the character is never offered a proper moment to say, hey, you're messing with the church, God and religion here. Couldn't you open your shop after the fast mandated by the religion of our forebears? Nope. It's easier to take potshots as if he were merely small-minded and readily mocked and not the leader of the town. He's a straw man, and it does disservice to both story and actor.

Judi Dench is wonderful as a mouthy diabetic sweetsing herself to death, alienating herself from daughter Carrie Moss, secretary to Molina, who will not allow her artistic young son to know his grandmother. Lena Olin (Hallstrom's wife) plays a flashing-eyed, hair-flinging kleptomaniac and repressed woman married to cruel, drunken barman Peter Stormare. Their roles are rote, although both actors bring life to them. Most charming is Johnny Depp as an Irish-brogue river rat who drifts into the town and Binoche's life.

Yet everything is airless. Chocolate-box is the word I'd have to use: This simulated city is filled with lovely trappings, but it's like paper simulating cloth, or sugar simulating substance. Roger Pratt's cinematography glistens, and you almost expect little porcelain ballerinas dancing in shop windows as in so many chi-chi little jewel boxes. I actually didn't dislike watching the movie, but its incoherence bugged me afterward, much as had The Cider House Rules.

Ravishing would be a lovely adjective, as would sweet, gentle, artistic, dazzling, or memorable. I can't use a single one of those words for Chocolat, however. You'll have to consult the newspaper ads filled with quotes from more tolerant writers than I. For me, Hallstrom has become a wholeheartedly bourgeoisie teller of meaninglessly "meaningful" whimsy: selling a kind of moral naughtiness, esteeming Binoche's love of "freedom" while never questioning whether it's more than irreverence to question tradition. The actors are fine, but the end result is no more than confectioner's glaze.

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