Nightcap (Merci Pour Le Chocolat)

| September 29, 2014

Nightcap (Merci Pour Le Chocolat, 2000) opens on the wedding of Marie-Claire (Isabelle Huppert) and André (Jacques Dutronc), long since divorced but settling down with one another once more. Then we’re off to the somber reception that follows, at which the couple’s fork-tongued guests talk venomously about them behind their backs. Such a scene provides the perfect foundation upon which to construct a Claude Chabrol mystery, mysteries which are so often predicated on local gossip and the swaying power of hearsay. Indeed, from this foundational understanding of the couple’s less-than-ideal betrothal—after all, since their divorce, he had wed and been widowed by Marie-Claire’s own sister—Chabrol crafts a tale of tremendous subtlety and immense tension. But I expected nothing less from Chabrol, the unrivaled master of the French thriller.

You see, a Chabrol film is an impeccably crafted thing, which is why he, drawing abundant and often evident inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, is so regularly compared to Hitchcock. Yet, the divide between the two filmmakers becomes an all-too-apparent gulf when you’ve familiarized yourself enough with their works. For a Chabrol film, with its methodically reserved pace and subdued visual aesthetic, ultimately bears but a passing resemblance to the work of Hitchcock, enormously suspenseful though the respective filmmakers’ works may be.

In a Chabrol film, for example, the tone, especially evident in Nightcap, is somehow at odds with our usual expectations of the thriller and mystery genres. In Nightcap, the tone is almost lackadaisical, presented as though there were nothing in fact amiss. But of course, there is clearly something wrong, even if it isn’t wholly evident at first what. We’re not even entirely sure what the trouble is when a young woman drops in unannounced, claiming she might be André’s daughter. The fact that the film itself doesn’t acknowledge this ambiguity in any way ever makes it that much more tense, stressful and engrossing. And the more familiar I get with Chabrol’s work, the more this “ambient suspense” gets to me, especially when coupled with the eerie timelessness of Chabrol’s aesthetic.

There’s a certain look, an unmistakable feel to a Chabrol film that transcends and supersedes any potential datedness of the characters’ wardrobe, say. It’s as though every Chabrol film from the late 1970s through the pictures he shot just before his death could have been made interchangeably at any point therein with negligible deviation in aesthetic presentation. This is particularly evident, I find, when you’re watching Chabrol’s films in high definition.

 

And happily I might say, the Cohen Film Collection has been good enough to provide us adoring Chabrol fans with a series of magnificent Blu-rays in 2014 that we might experience Chabrol’s films at their absolute best. Between The Inspector Lavardin Collection, The Color of Lies and September 30th’s release of Nightcap, they’ve given us six Chabrol features thus far in 2014 (two of the Lavardin pictures were made for television, I should add). With another three listed on their website, it seems we can expect more in the coming year(s) from Cohen.  Their release of Nightcap boasts a stunningly clear and consistent transfer, even if it does at points show some signs of speckling, and includes the film’s 2014 theatrical trailer and an essay in the release’s eight-page booklet by Peter Tonguette.

(Merci Pour Le Chocolat

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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