Claude Chabrol’s careerlong fascination with the haute bourgeoisie continues in Merci Pour le Chocolat, a psychological drama adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb. For over four decades, in films such as The Champagne Murders, La Femme Infidele, Just Before Nightfall, The Twist, and La Ceremonie, Chabrol has snooped behind the manicured facades of upper-middle-class society to expose a cesspool of greed, larceny, hypocrisy, twisted sexuality, and mayhem. Yet, like Luis Bunuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, he’s also drawn to the privileges of his well-heeled protagonists, sharing their fondness for elegant homes, stylish clothes, sumptuous meals, and the other luxuries that cloak their perversity.
Given Chabrol’s propensity for concealment, it’s no surprise that, since the departure of his ex-wife, actress Stephane Audran, Isabelle Huppert has become his favorite leading lady. The Buster Keaton of contemporary cinema, Huppert won international acclaim as a catatonic in Claude Goretta’s 1977 The Lacemaker, a role that defined her subsequent screen persona. Glacial, thin-lipped Huppert rarely betrays a flicker of expression, even when attempting to murder her despised mother in Violette, swallowing poison in Madame Bovary, or slitting her vagina with a razor blade in the recent The Piano Teacher. The actress’s inertness functions, sometimes with unexpected effectiveness, as a Rorschach blot, challenging viewers to project emotion onto her impenetrable visage.
The sixth Chabrol-Huppert collaboration takes the pair to Lausanne, Switzerland. The actress plays chocolate heiress/philanthropist Mika Muller, the ostensibly adoring and supportive wife of concert pianist Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc, with an unruly mop of hair as black as dye). The couple inhabit a characteristically Chabrolian dwelling—a vine-covered estate above Lake Geneva with fashionably appointed contemporary interiors—accompanied by Andre’s indolent adolescent son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), home from college for the summer.
Merci Pour le Chocolat’s first hour leisurely unravels a skein of tangled familial history. Briefly married when they were young, Andre and Mika divorced. He then wed Lisbeth, Guillaume’s mother, who died in an automobile accident on their son’s sixth birthday, after which Andre and Mika remarried. Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), a young pianist preparing for a competition in Budapest, learns from her scientist mother, Louise (Brigitte Catillon), that, due to a hospital nurse’s error, she was briefly switched at birth with Guillaume. She invades the Polonski home on the suspicion that, given her musical talent and Guillaume’s tin ear, Andre might be her real father.
After assuring Jeanne that Guillaume is, in fact, his child, Andre takes a shine to the intruder, even offering to coach her. Jeanne senses something sinister beneath Mika’s gracious hospitality, however—a conjecture reinforced when she observes her hostess intentionally spill a container of hot chocolate, her culinary specialty. Jeanne obtains a sample of the fluid and gives it to her lab-technician boyfriend, who discovers that it contains a soporific. Following another of Mika’s “accidents”—she overturns a pot of boiling water on Guillaume’s leg—Jeanne attempts to discover what Mika is plotting and the identities of her intended victims.
Chabrol’s assured visual style, notable for its precisely composed and edited images, makes Merci Pour le Chocolat a joy to watch—particularly in its first half, as ancestral secrets gradually unfold and tensions subtly mount. The sequences in which Andre and Jeanne rehearse piano duets of Liszt and Britten compositions are particularly intriguing, hinting at a growing erotic attraction that is possibly incestuous—a suggestion reinforced by the director’s casting Mouglalis as Lisbeth in a brief flashback. Apart from some unconvincing piano-doubling—no effort is expended to convince us that Dutronc and Mouglalis are actually playing keyboards—Merci Pour le Chocolat is so smoothly directed that it provides almost nothing to nitpick.
But the film prepares us to expect a dramatic payoff that never arrives. The narrative resolves exactly as any attentive viewer would expect it to, and the only surprise is something of a cheat: two characters who appear to have perished turn out to be alive. Despite a fadeout speech in which Mika obliquely articulates her motives, we’re never quite sure what impels her behavior—an ambiguity reinforced by Huppert’s deadpan performance. She squeezes out two tears, with as much passion as someone chopping an onion, then covers her face to avoid further emoting. Although Huppert deserves credit for resisting the temptation to Streep up the screen, she’s too enigmatic to provide the film with a satisfying payoff.
This sputtering, predictable climax leads one to wonder whether, after 53 features, Chabrol still possesses the energy and originality that informed masterpieces such as Les Bonnes Femmes and Le Boucher. Still, one can’t casually dismiss the satisfaction that his refined craftsmanship provides, a bourgeois pleasure rarely experienced at the movies these days. CP