Merci Pour le Chocolat

| August 5, 2002

Another year, another Chabrol. Another month, another Isabelle Huppert showcase. If you look under “prolific” in the Dictionary of the Film World, you’ll probably find it defined in terms of these two. And of course, given the fact that there are really very few good ideas in the world – at least ones that can be made into a movie – I didn’t expect too much from this film. After all, Chabrol’s movie-a-year record has given fruit to several mediocre productions. Much to my delight, however, Merci Pour Le Chocolat turned out to be a very enjoyable thriller, and while it is by no stretch of imagination a classic, it will make for an excellent Saturday night rental.
Isabelle Huppert plays chocolate heiress Mika Muller who remarries pianist ex-husband Andre Polonski in this story adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb. In the meantime, Andre has married for a second time, had a son, Guillaume, and lost his wife to a freak car accident. Jeanne, a young pianist played by Anna Mouglalis with Liv Tyler-like fresh-faced charm, accidentally learns that she was nearly switched for Guillaume at birth. The fact that she might be a famous pianist’s daughter spurs Jeanne to drop in on the Polonskis. The pianist takes a fancy to the young girl, and since Jeanne is practicing for a competition, he offers to train her. The arrival of this stranger into the Polonski household creates a certain amount of upheaval – Guillaume who has no talent for music and little self-confidence harbors more than a little jealousy – and for the remaining hour or so, Merci Pour Le Chocolat examines how the dynamics within the Polonski family evolve in response to Jeanne. Polonski goes from mildly interested teacher, to being constantly reminded of his dead wife, Guillaume develops an unlikely cooperation with Jeanne, and Muller’s relationship to hot chocolate and sleeping pills pushes its way to the foreground.
There are two central concepts in this movie which together act as the axis for the entire film: chocolate, and music. Muller’s identity – a woman of means who looks for situations in which she can do some good – is based on her position as the head of the Muller Chocolate firm. Her position in her home is outlined by a ritual: she prepares the hot chocolate for a nightcap every evening. This nightcap is both an essential part of the Polonski household, and also a reminder of the past, of Guillaume’s mother’s untimely death. Huppert’s sphinx-like expressions and the calm in Muller’s actions and words portend something horribly tragic, an all-pervasive feeling that stands out as the central theme of Merci Pour Le Chocolat.
Polonski the pianist, played by Jacques Dutronc, is completely caught up in his music. When he finds Jeanne a motivated and enthusiastic student, he throws himself into teaching her the most interesting way to play Liszt’s Funerailles. Chabrol is well-known for his intimate interest in classical music, and each Polonski-Jeanne sequence is shot with great care and devoted fascination. We can feel the subtle distinctions that Polonski is trying to point out to Jeanne, and after a couple of lessons, we perceive her progress. There is some amount of symbolism in the choice of the piece, of course, but it is shaded delicately by Polonski insisting that it should not be played like a funeral march. An original score by Chabrol’s son, Matthieu, with its smooth mix of anticipation and reservation is a perfectly complementary backdrop to the grimness of Funerailles.
The locale, Switzerland, gives Chabrol an excuse to remind us, once again, that he was one of the pioneers of the New Wave. Wide-open vistas of the lake, careening drives down the mountainside, as well as the curious but eventually sympathetic study of Muller are all signposts of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd. Cameraman Renato Berta uses a deft, if uninspired, hand to pull all these elements together to present an atmosphere which is chilling yet beautiful. A few missed opportunities point out the lack of inspiration: Muller is actually weaving a dark rug shaped like a cobweb, but this is tossed in like a brief nude shot which breaks the continuity rather than adding anything to the proceedings. While making too much out of the cobweb would have been disastrous, handling it like the symbolism of the Liszt piece would have made it a highlight of the movie. The denoument is, however, vintage Nouvelle Vague: the evil intention, the anticlimactic phone call carrying news of the victims, and the diffused ending in which Huppert lies crouched in a fetal position on her couch.
Merci Pour Le Chocolat is no classic in the making, but a well-made suspenseful film. The element of suspense is, of course, pure Chabrol: you pretty much know what will happen, but you don’t know exactly how or when. Both the content and the style are repetitions of his earlier work, and Muller is a little too mysterious than she needed to be. Nevertheless, the average quality of the performances by Huppert and Mouglalis, Chabrol’s writing, and above all, the brilliant and sophisticated use of music makes this film worth a try.

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