That Old Slack Magic


Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat shares with the director’s previous Miramax Oscar cause—the sheepish, unwittingly contradictory pro-choice homily The Cider House Rules—an assumed demographic, and panders accordingly. A condescending, self-congratulatory attack on provincial sanctimony, Chocolat (sadly unrelated to Claire Denis’s terrific first feature of the same name) positions a kind, wise, modern woman against the twin evils of organized religion and institutional patriarchy. Though bludgeoningly metaphoric, this cloying fable on the dangers of appetite suppression is at bottom too literal-minded to accommodate any potentially helpful magic-realist flourishes. Worse, its broad farcical pratfalls are grossly incompatible with its zealous lunges for moral significance.

Accounting for the missing e in the title, the setting is une petite ville tranquille in the early ’50s, where the inhabitants speak numerous versions of a lightly French-accented English. Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter (Ponette heartbreaker Victoire Thivisol) blow into town in matching red capes, and the locals are promptly scandalized when the sexy, soulful single mother opens a chocolaterie (during Lent, no less). But the establishment, with its bold turquoise walls and yummy calorific treats, becomes a serene oasis of enlightenment in this drab, self-denying bourg. Vianne divines her customers’ favorite candies, matchmakes, engineers reconciliations, revives sex lives, and raises feminist consciousness. Her witchy traits are later ascribed to her Mayan mother, from whom she inherited the therapeutic secrets of the cocoa bean and the mission of rampaging through the French countryside leaving a trail of truffles-induced epiphanies in her wake. Vianne’s contagious heathenism provokes Alfred Molina’s apoplectic mayor to declare a jihad, soon accelerated by the arrival of a band of Irish “river rats” led by Johnny Depp (who plays an almost identical part in Sally Potter’s upcoming, inadvertently riotous The Man Who Cried).

Airy, pseudo-folkloric gibberish at best, Chocolat affects shrill agnosticism in the service of a disingenuous pro-tolerance rallying cry. Reduced to pawns, the charismatic cast—battered kleptomaniac Lena Olin, sweet-toothed diabetic Judi Dench, priggish control freak Carrie-Anne Moss—goes to waste, as does the blessedly swoony coupling of Binoche and Depp. More troubling, it’s now clear that the limpid, unforced melancholy of Hallström’s early films has Miramaxed into industrial-strength sweetener—the chief ingredient in this confection is corn syrup.

Bypassing the overripe goofiness of kindred quasi-medieval crock like Labyrinth and Willow, the film version of ’80s role-playing thingy Dungeons & Dragons instead attempts an earnest, tacky synthesis of Phantom Menace, Mortal Kombat, and Xena: Warrior Princess. At once laboriously expository and defiantly incomprehensible, the movie seems to involve the hunt for an enchanted “rod,” a threat to the prevailing “fabric of magic,” the fight for democracy in the kingdom of Izmer, and the ritual humiliation of actors. In ascending order of ignominy: haughty apprentice mage Zoe McLellan; Skywalkerish commoner Justin Whalin (the new Sean Patrick Flanery or the new Robert Sean Leonard? Discuss); his bumbling sidekick Marlon Wayans (in a role with more suspect racial overtones than Jar Jar Binks); squawking, Glenn Close-channeling Jeremy Irons; and fair-minded empress Thora Birch, who models a series of headpieces cribbed from ’70s disco album sleeves and throughout sustains the impression of having learned her lines phonetically.