Merci pour le Chocolat

France (2000) Dir. Claude Chabrol

Sometimes you read the synopsis for a crime/mystery drama and think “What would Hitchcock have done with this?” Being a confirmed fan of Hitch, French auteur Claude Chabrol decided to assume the role himself for this adaptation of Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb.

Marie-Claire ‘Mika’ Muller (Isabelle Huppert), the heiress of a Swiss chocolate factory, has remarried her ex-husband, celebrated pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) and now has a stepson in gauche layabout Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) from André’s recently deceased second wife Lisbeth. Meanwhile an aspiring pianist Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis) learns from her mother Louise (Brigitte Catillon) that when Jeanne was born, she was mistakenly identified as André’s child for a very brief moment at the hospital.

Jeanne decides to pay André a visit, curious as to how she shares his musical talent which her doctor mother doesn’t possess. André doesn’t accept being Jeanne’s father but does offer her some piano tuition ahead of an upcoming exam. Mika finds Jeanne’s arrival a little suspicious while Jeanne herself wonders about Mika’s behaviour in general, especially her obsession with making drinking chocolate.

Chabrol was entering into the sixth decade of his career with this film and just a five films away from the end prior to his death in 2010. It’s fair to say that Chabrol had distinguished and prolific career with many classics to his credit, but in this instance if he was trying to channel his inner Hitchcock, he came up a little short but at remained true to his own recognisable style.

The reason for this statement is that for what is a mystery thriller there is little in the way tension building, which Hitchcock and other directors would have laid on thick to leave the audience chewing their fingernails down to their knuckles. Instead the story unfolds at a steady pace relying on the garrulous but often laconic interactions of the characters to hold our interest and chart the various developments.

This means vital clues leading to the eventual outcome and important backstory comes from verbal exposition and occasional moments of behavioural irregularity. As a prime example of this the set up is crammed into the opening ten minutes or so – the registry office wedding between Mika and André where the guests all gossip about how Lisbeth died (it was a car accident) is quickly followed by the conversation about Jeanne’s hospital gaff taking place at a café, after Louise see’s the notice of the wedding in the paper, leading to her recalling the whole affair.

From here a curious Jeanne decides to pay André a visit, her interest in music impressing André, her looks delighting Guillaume, her boldness irritating Mika. The latter is quick to get to know Jeanne, showing her a portrait photo of Lisbeth which reveals the obvious similarities between the two. This is a frustrating facet of the plot – it may have been designed as a McGuffin or Chabrol was just trolling the audience but it would seem that nobody noticed this remarkable coincidence at all! It goes unremarked upon for the entire film!

Despite this glaring oversight Mika slips easily into jealous stepmother mode over a girl who isn’t her husband’s daughter and secretly begins to investigate her while a devious plot quietly formulates behind her polite smile. In what must be another McGuffin, Mika sets Jeanne’s mind racing when she openly drops some hot chocolate in her presence which got on Jeanne’s jumper. Jeanne gives it to her boyfriend who has a lab friend test it, discovering rohypnol in it.

Quite why Mika would leave herself so wide open belies the overprotective nature she displays towards the making of the drinking chocolate which she insists on doing herself. Then again she is less subtle in getting Louise onside then asking probing questions about Jeanne, so if there is a method in her madness it is either very unconventional or she is not the Machiavellian genius she thinks she is.

As you probably gleam from this, there are plenty of classic crime thriller and mystery elements present but for whatever reason Chabrol is able to bring them together in the manner that we are used to within the framework of these genres. What he does is have his cast talk a lot about the plot developments instead of letting them play out outside of the odd burst of activity, usually courtesy of Mika.

Yet against the odds of sounding like a disaster of a film it is still highly watchable and engaging in its own way, largely through the strong performances of the cast. For the more observant viewer Chabrol throws in symbolic visual teases, such as Mika’s spilling of her chocolate drinks resembling pools of blood, or the cobweb design on the couch on which Mika rests her head in the final scene.

The cast appear uniformly to be on Chabrol’s wavelength, seem unfazed by this being a non-thrilling thriller, and give their all. Isabelle Huppert is an unequivocally supreme choice for the role of Mika; she has a stern face that says everything yet is suffused with enough ambiguity and steeliness to tell us nothing. Her body language says sweet and amiable but a sinister undercurrent is chillingly palpable.

Having been drugged Jacques Dutronc and Rodolphe Pauly get to somewhat relax in their respective roles of André and Guillaume, compared to the plotting of Mika and the energy Jeanne brings to the proceedings. Anna Mouglalis steps up to challenge Huppert for screen dominance and makes a good fist of it with her vibrant performance but she is up against a legend.

Merci pour le Chocolat is a frustrating film as it should be a tense filled crime thriller with a mystery edge but instead is a serviceable drama delivered with a laid back French panache. Its flaws and lack of dynamic are countered by its glorious subtleties and strong lead performances. Not a Chabrol classic but not his worst film either.

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