As a subject, food has proved a real winner for the movies. From the ribald scoffing scene in Tom Jones, through to the sexy sushi romp in Tampopo and the sumptuous supper of Babette's Feast, the use of nosh on film often spells sex, seduction and a lip-smackingly good yarn.
As well as the various and exotic chocs on display, Chocolat also happens to feature the rather tasty Juliette Binoche and, for the girls, the dishy Johnny Depp, as the two wanderers - one a confectioner with near-magical talents, the other a riverboat gypsy - whose paths cross in the uptight village which desperately needs to let its hair down. With this pair, an absolutely fantastic supporting cast which includes the under-valued Alfred Molina and the usually sure-footed Swede Lasse Hallström (My Life As A Dog, The Cider House Rules) at the helm, this would seem a certain critical and box-office (not to say culinary) hit. Yet sadly it's more Joe's Cafe than Michelin Star, falling well short of being the sum of its ingredients.
Based on the novel by Joanne Harris, the film is faithful to the book's themes of restraint versus self-indulgence and conformity versus individuality - the need to enjoy the good things in life. But one crucial plot left out by the film is the mystery of Vianne's true nature, the question of whether she's a witch and not just a dab cook. Thus Hallström loses the sense of danger that runs through the book of Vianne being exposed and persecuted, and which provides a dramatic undercurrent to the eating scenes. Without this vital element, Chocolat becomes too frothy for its own good.
There are, to be fair, many pleasures. It's often very funny and the town looks a treat, a sort of Neverneverland that lends the movie a fairytale quality. Both Judi Dench, as a grouchy diabetic who stuffs her face anyway, and Molina, who manages that difficult trick of being both threatening and ridiculous at the same time, are impressive. Meanwhile Depp makes for a sexy and amusing match for Binoche, even if he is burdened with a particularly terrible Oirish accent.
The main problem is with the tone, let down by the deficiencies in the script and some cinematography - particularly in the interiors - which makes it look like a TV movie. The result, for Brit audiences at least, is strangely reminiscent of the cheesy camp French resistance sitcom, Allo Allo ("Urrraaae - we must 'ide les croisSANTS before the GEstapo confisCATE themmm.") Pity.
If you didn't have a sweet tooth before going to see this film, you probably will afterwards. But while Chocolat may tempt the taste buds, it will leave the rest of you cold. A prestige project that doesn't quite manage to reach boiling point.