Merci Pour Le Chocolat



aka Nightcap
France 2000
director : Claude Chabrol
script : Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff (based on novel ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong)
cinematography : Renato Berta
editing : Monique Fardoulis
music : Matthieu Chabrol
lead actors : Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Anna Mouglalis, Rodolphe Pauly
99 minutes

Claude Chabrol has averaged at least a film a year in the 44 years since his 1957 debut Le Beau Serge, and as you’d expect from such a veteran craftsman, Merci Pour Le Chocolat is expertly made – or rather ‘tooled,’ its smooth surfaces professionally locking together.

That’s the nice way of putting it – more impatient viewers might instead criticise Merci as so old-fashioned it resembles the mainstream French movies of the mid-50s that the self-proclaimed New Wave – of which Serge is acknowledged as the first major ripple – was supposed to banish forever. Not that anyone has ever regarded Chabrol as an iconoclast of the order of fellow New Waver Jean-Luc Godard, or turned to his sly Hitchcockian suspense thrillers in search of radical formal experiment. On occasion Chabrol’s very classiness, his taste, are exactly what certain material requires: in Merci, it allows him to create a suitably Swiss atmosphere, a convincing world of glacial, not-quite-human calm.

The just-so atmosphere is personified in the impeccably coiffed and dressed Mika (Huppert), chic heiress of a lucrative chocolate empire. The film opens with her remarrying renowned concert-pianist Polonski (Dutronc, a dead ringer for Italian football coach Cesare Maldini) in Lausanne. The couple initially separated over 20 years before, and in the interim Polonski married Lisbeth, with whom he had a son, the gauche Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). In a typically Swiss arrangement, Mika, Polonski and Lisbeth remained great friends – the couple were staying in Mika’s opulent mansion when Lisbeth was killed in a car accident.

As Mika and Polonski settle into (re)married life, a face from the past reappears – Jeanne Pollet (Mouglalis), a young pianist born in the same hospital, at the same time, as Guillaume. There was even initially some confusion about which baby was which, and, having just discovered this, Jeanne is intrigued by the possibility that Polonski may be her real father. Her enquiries initially unsettle only Guillaume, but soon have much more serious repercussions.

It’s a complicated plot, but that’s part of the pleasure. The picture is billed as a thriller, so it’s natural for audiences to be continually puzzling over the clues that are casually dotted through the narrative, scanning the frame for hints of what’s happened in the past, and what may be about to happen in the future. We’re constantly leaning forward into the plot, trying to outguess Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Eliacheff, and this makes it very easy to be carried along on the movie’s seductive flow, to be sucked into this slightly alien world of lakeside villas, classical piano music and hot-chocolate nightcaps.

The recipe is familiar from Patricia Highsmith’s novels, with their chic, well-heeled amoralists whose outward appearance is gradually revealed to mask inner turmoil, corruption – perhaps even madness. A character remarks that car crime is unheard-of in Lausanne, and Chabrol shows us there’s more to fear from darkly-motivated psychosis, though of course he doesn’t go so far in this direction as Dario Argento did in his delirious Swiss romp Phenomena. In Chabrol’s world, there’s nothing so vulgar as direct person-to-person violence.

But surely Highsmith and Argento alike would balk at Merci‘s ending, a frustratingly abrupt conclusion that sits oddly with such an intriguingly complex build-up. There is another car crash, we’re not allowed to see it and only hear about it second hand. By this time, Chabrol’s concerns are much more about character than suspense, and the climax is made up almost entirely of conversation. The ‘whodunnit’ element is resolved, but the whydunnit remains opaque. We’re thrown some fairly arbitrary scraps about motivation, nothing more. A character sits down on a sofa decorated with a spiders-web design, staring ambiguously into the middle distance (into the past?) as the credits roll.

But Chabrol doesn’t fade to black, instead holding and holding on the close-up, instantly recalling Garbo at the end of Queen Christina, majestically impassive at her ship’s prow, a blank canvas refusing to yield easy answers. And we realise that while cobwebs, even of the chocolate variety, are intricate and beautiful constructions, closer inspection reveals them to be mainly holes and air.

(original ‘teaser’ review, available here, written 8th July, 2001)

22nd July, 2001
(seen Tyneside Cinema, Jul-11-01)
by Neil Young
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