Chocolat fits easily into a now-burgeoning genre of films which explore the restorative, life-enhancing power of food--Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, Big Night, Like Water for Chocolate and Woman on Top. Lasse Hallström's handsomely filmed, cozy audience-pleaser resembles the last-named the most, with its delectable chocolate-making heroine, Vianne (Juliette Binoche), who holds sway over an entire town with her personal charm and culinary skill. The villagers, cast resolutely to type, include a crusty yet lovable matriarch (Judi Dench); a troubled, near-crazy housewife (Lena Olin), abused by her boorish, alcoholic spouse (Peter Stormare); a charming riverboat minstrel (Johnny Depp); a pair of slighty dotty older lovers who succumb to the romantic influence of the coca plant (Leslie Caron, John Wood), and Vianne's nemesis, the repressed, self-righteously moralistic mayor (Alfred Molina). The Mayor nearly succeeds in running Vianne out of town, but she triumphs and the townspeople assert their newfound freedom.

The cast is what really puts this lightweight conceit over. The ultra-plummy Binoche, who has matured refulgently, is every bit as ravishing a camera subject as Penelope Cruz was in Woman on Top and, filled with aplomb, she provides a warmly inviting center to the film. Her character is an almost superhuman paragon of sagacity and good will and, without Binoche's lovely naturalness, might easily have seemed annoyingly smug. The very airiness of the material allows the actress to bloom in ways she couldn't in her concurrent Broadway appearance in Harold Pinter's aridly schematic Betrayal. Dench, with her laser wit and cello voice, tosses off her hard-bitten-to-heartwarming role as easily as befits one of the greatest actresses of our time. Olin, given the strongest part she's had in years, remains as fiercely compelling as ever, and it's amusing to see her and her Unbearable Lightness of Being partner, Binoche, reteamed in a situation that rather reverses their roles in the earlier film. It's also wonderful to see Caron, one of the most underrated of actresses, imbue her character with such charming querulousness. (Check out her defining performance in The L Shaped Room some time to see what she can really do.) Depp plays guitar and uses a lilting Irish brogue to imbue his raffish writer's conception with at least some degree of individuality, besides an all-purpose dash. The freshest performance, however, is actually given by Aurelien Parent Koenig, who is touchingly convincing as Dench's overprotected grandson. Roger Pratt's photography has an alluring, storybook quality, and elicits audience moans when he lingers over Vianne's varied confections. Rachel Portman's music adds a nice tootling note of whimsy. The producers should prepare themselves for a raft of Oscar nominations.

--David Noh