Clarissa Cruz
February 23, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

It may be impossible to take your eyes off her exquisite Gallic face and expressive gestures, but the real treat in watching Juliette Binoche is the way she seamlessly inhabits a character. In Lasse Hallström’s ode to sensuality and inclusion, Chocolat, Binoche is Vianne Rocher, a single mother with a wandering soul who introduces a repressed French town to the joys of luscious living. And makes it look damn near effortless.

”The fact that she’s French and has that European approach was important for this character,” says costar Lena Olin. ”A lot of times [being European] works against us, but the fact that she’s a real European gives an authenticity to the story.”

As with her Oscar-clinching turn as a sympathetic nurse in 1996’s The English Patient — she upset heavy favorite Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces to win Best Supporting Actress — Binoche’s most telling moments in Chocolat are often wordless: In a scene where a mentally unstable woman (Olin) proffers a stolen compact as a gift, we see joy, realization, and uncertain acceptance swirl across Binoche’s delicate features in a few fleeting seconds, telling us more about her character’s nature than pages of dialogue ever could. ”She’s very economical and has a wonderful way of being very, very truthful without giving away too much,” says costar Alfred Molina, who was first struck by Binoche’s subtle gifts in 1988, when she made her American film debut at age 23 in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ”You can’t see the wheels going around — I’m never aware of her acting in that regard, certainly not Acting with a capital A.”

Binoche is equally unassuming when explaining why she accepted the role that set her on a sugar-dusted path to an Oscar nod. ”I loved the gesture of using chocolate to link one another, but also that when you give, it comes back to you in surplus.” And in a shot at gold on the big night.

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