Merci pour le Chocolat March 25, 2017
sort of catharsis will be reached. As an effect of his liking of the understated, Chabrol’s films, no matter the standing in their respective genres, are often unbearably suspenseful.
Merci pour le Chocolat (2000) is typically Chabrolian. It's essentially a psychological thriller. But it nonetheless also takes on the form of a naturalistic character study so dry in its approach that the tension swimming underneath the realistic exchanges practically screams in its desire to be broken. Slow burning and sly, it is a meticulously designed mystery that doesn’t feel all too much like a meticulously designed mystery because Chabrol is so much more fascinated by familial dynamics in an affluent home. The relationship between the seemingly disparate tonalities, fortunately, is a symbiotic one: even without its Hitchcockian undercurrent, the movie would still provoke in its analysis of the bourgeoisie.
In Merci pour le Chocolat, we are concerned with Mika and André Polonski (Isabelle Huppert and Jacques Dutronc), a well-to-do French couple who, as the film opens, are remarrying after several years apart. Briefly united two decades previously – married “for a few minutes,” as one of the film’s characters recalls – their connection has changed since they were in their 20s.
Mika, the daughter of a recently deceased chocolate manufacturer, has taken on the role of a shrewd businesswoman, haunting every room with a detached presence and an aloof manner of speech. Jacques, a concert pianist who remarried and had a kid after he and Mika originally broke up, is now sad-eyed and wallowing in the realization that his son, the guileless Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), will never live up to his expectations.
As we act as spectators to their wedding, we notice that no one in the room seems to be particularly overjoyed that the couple is getting back together. Even Mika and André don’t seem to much like each other. Perhaps it’s a remarriage characterized by the comforts of familiarity.
Following the ceremony, the clan moves into Mika’s sprawling manor, which sits at the end of a cartoonishly windy road and looks about as inviting as the Hill House in the spring. André and Guillaume don’t mind packing everything up and repositioning themselves to Mika’s liking, though: the mansion has two gorgeous grand pianos for André and has plenty of room to play video games and get high for Guillaume. And Mika serves extraordinary looking hot chocolate every night, a ritual the father and son can get behind.
But we suspect that something’s off, considering that part of the film’s title centers itself on Mika’s cherished drink and that Mika herself is so unsettlingly tranquil that there seems to be a high possibility that a scheme is underway.
Those fears seem to solidify upon the arrival of Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), an attractive 20-something who speculates that André could be her father after she finds a clipping claiming that she and Guillaume were briefly switched in the hospital. Granted that Pollet is an aspiring pianist with talents incredulously similar to André’s, we’re more than a little intrigued, even more so when Pollet inadvertently sees Mika purposely spill some of her hot cocoa. There’s something disjointed about this family’s accord, and we, along with Pollet, take it upon ourselves to discover what dark secrets are dancing below the surface.
And even after we do discover what’s really going on and why Mika is so shifty-eyed, we still can’t get Merci pour le Chocolat out from under our skin. Chabrol fashions the film so quietly and cunningly that we become certain that there’s more than meets the eye even after we’ve gotten our eyeful. Many argue that the movie is mostly a minor work from a major auteur, but I think the film is only a display of his genius. He’s so easily able to prevent a typical soap opera storyline from bubbling over, somehow convincing us that the dramas of the Polonski family are so everyday that we might as well not even call Merci pour le Chocolat a psychological thriller. And that’s a feat.
Of course, the best thing about the feature is Huppert, among the few actresses who can translate placidity into unseen fury. There’s never a moment in the film wherein her Mika isn’t completely composed and cool, and we want to dig into her psyche with a figurative double-headed axe. What is this woman hiding? Merci pour le Chocolat is a film comprised of so many secrets, of so many unsaid scandals, the answer is worth looking into. B+
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
f the great European auteurs could make their films their own through a distinct visual style, then consider Claude Chabrol, among the French New Wave’s most successful artists, to be such a distinctive filmmaker as a result of what he doesn’t do. Especially in the last half of his illustrious career, Chabrol’s features have typically bore melodramatic stories not produced as typical melodramas. They have been, instead, flatly shot and linguistically mannered, clipped to such a point that we regularly notice that we sometimes inch closer to the screen in hopes that some