Merci Pour Le Chocolat

September, 2002, Drama

Merci pour Le Chocolat

French director Claude Chabrol is something of an acquired taste; a 72 year old auteur, (credited by many with initiating the so-called "nouvelle vague" and once married to the gorgeous actress Stephanie Audran,) Chabrol's output of 50+  austere and cynical works, have easily earned him a place in the front ranks of legendary names in European cinema. This film, released almost two years ago in France, also continues his long collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, the legendary actress who's worked with Chabrol at least a half dozen times. Crime lies at the heart of this successful partnership, and this effort is no exception.

The film, an adaptation of Charlotte Armstrong's novel "The Chocolate Cobweb" displays Huppert at her maddingly impenetrable best, and demonstrates Chabrol's lean, unvarnished visual style to perfection. Whether it makes for a particularly intriguiging experience for the viewer depends upon one's appetite for the cat and mouse intracies of an improbable plot and the mystery Huppert bring to her pivotal role in it.

She plays Mika, a wealthy business woman, briefly married to Andre, a concert pianist played with superb sense of ennui by co-star Jacques Dutronc. After a brief marriage to each other, they divorce and then remarry years later after Andre has had a son by his second wife. Huppert's fastidious, dull life is suddenly ruptured by the arrival of Jeanne, an aspiring young piano student, who was born at the same time, and in the same hospital, as Andre's son. There was talk of a possible mix-up at birth, and although all parties agree this didn't actually happen, Jeanne seems much more likely to be the fruit of Andre's gene-pool than his withdrawn, whiney offspring. 

As the action unfolds, it begins to appear that Mika may have had something to do with the death of André's second wife, who may not have given Andre the son he's always assumed was his, but quite possibly the daughter he never had. Mika's obsessive interest in the chance entrance of Jeanne into their lives alternately alarms and confuses; and the threads of this inter-generational web hinge on the cocoa Mika serves to everyone, (from her family's chocolate factory) could it have  been used as a murder weapon?

All this makes damn little sense, and wouldn't generate much interest, were it not for the ability of Huppert to make the motivations of her Mika so fascinating. Duplicity, condescension and willfulness play across that perfectly composed face; as Mika, does Huppert manipulate the people caught in her web, or simply note their discomfort with the events she stage manages? . Is she the bland, imperturbable sophisticate she seems, or something far more dangerous? If she's the latter, who's really at risk? What motivates her? What is she hiding? Why is she so afraid?  Just what in the hell is she really up to? 

An audience committed to amateur psychology can have a lot of fun with one conflicting hypothesis after another.

Alas, the resolution of these questions is far less satisfying than their presentation, leading to a climax that is both logically inconsistent and emotionally unsatisfying-but the trip is certainly an opportunity to see an astounding actress working at the peak of her powers. 

Fortunately, Chabrol's spare style provides the apparently conventional Mika a perfect background for this psychological puzzle; the movie's scenes are stripped of anything but the establishment of its core premise, and the complexities of the plot emerge with more clarity than their summary would suggest. From Huppert's brief work on a large crocheted throw rug to an early but crucial shot of a car taking Jeanne through a hairpin turn enroute to Mika and Andre's elegant but dreary mansion, Chabrol doesn't waste a single frame of film. And if the whole doesn't equal the sum of its parts, this demonstration of Huppert's acting ability and Chabrol's crisp story telling contains much to recommend it.

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus