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MAIN CAST

  MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT
Thank You For The Chocolate  
Claude Chabrol
2000 || 99 mins

A young piano student, Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), learns that she might have been switched at birth with the son of the famous concert pianist, André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Curious, she visits Polonski’s house where she is warmly received by the musician and his wife, Marie-Claire ‘Mika’ Muller (Isabelle Huppert), the owner of a famous chocolate factory. Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), Polonski’s son, is less enthusiastic about the new arrival, especially when his father asks her to return for an extended visit so that he can coach her on her playing.

As Jeanne gets to know the family better, she becomes increasingly aware that things aren’t quite as harmonious as they might at first have seemed. In particular, she becomes suspicious of Mika when she sees her deliberately knock over a flask of chocolate meant for Guillaume. With the help of a boyfriend who works in a forensics lab, she discovers that the chocolate was drugged. When she confronts Guillaume with the truth, he tells her that his mother, Polonski’s first wife, died in a car accident, having fallen asleep at the wheel of her car after drinking some of Mika’s chocolate. Could it be that generous-hearted Mika is not all she seems?

 



Claude Chabrol’s elegant, well-crafted 53rd feature film is an enticing concoction that, like the bedtime cocoa served up in the Polonski household, is a pleasure to consume but leaves one feeling slightly sickly afterwards. Adapted from American crime writer Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb but transposed to the Mecca of chocolate production, Switzerland (the Swiss are not only amongst the greatest producers of chocolate in the world, they also boast the highest rate per capita consumption of the confection in the world), this is another in the director’s long line of suspense thrillers examining the tensions lurking beneath the surface of benign bourgeois families and the capacity of apparently civilized individuals to commit murder.

The wedding scene that opens Merci pour le chocolat must surely rank as the most unromantic in film history. The world weary expressions of André and Mika as they are ‘rebound’ (they were married briefly many years before) as the officiator puts it, are alleviated only slightly by their knowingly wry smiles, as around them business associates and other assorted acquaintances look on sceptically. The newlyweds and their son Guillaume appear a rather likeable family when contrasted with the mean-spirited guests around them. They’re clearly used to being talked about and take it in their stride. When the pushy Jeanne arrives on their doorstep they appreciate her straightforwardness and welcome her into their household. But it doesn’t take long for the keen-eyed girl to spot something amiss.

The more observant amongst the audience will have been put on the alert already, courtesy of some stunning acting from Isabelle Huppert. From the start, there is something disquieting about her stillness, a sense that beneath the tranquil facade she presents to the world lies a calculating predator with a cold-blooded private agenda. Her gaze alternates between a kind of trance-like serenity and an intense watchfulness; only occasionally do we catch a glimpse of some darker purpose below the surface. She has a habit of spilling her chocolate, whether by accident or on purpose, leaving splashes of the stuff on the sides of flasks and over the floor. These dark stains, so reminiscent of spilt blood, are the guilty traces of unseen violence. She mops them up, but like Lady Macbeth, sooner or later the truth will out. When Mika herself reveals the truth, it’s all the more disturbing coming from somebody who appears to be motivated in her public and private life by good intentions. It’s a shock to learn that behind the grown-up, compassionate mask is a cruel child, devoid of morality, capable of doing anything to get what she wants.



Aside from the attention-grabbing element of the poisoned chocolate, the film’s dominant metaphor is the music that frequently punctuates the narrative. The choice of Liszt’s ‘Funeral March’ as the central composition upon which student and master toil, is particularly apt. It’s sombre tone, together with the film’s own soundtrack sets the dominant mood of the picture. Structurally the narrative, in the Hitchcockian tradition, plays with the theme of the double – the once-married couple remarrying, the accidental swapping of the babies, the climactic scene which is a virtually identical rerun of what occurred before – all point to the idea of past events coming back to haunt the present. Although the plot appears at times overly contrived and a number of ambiguous story points are never fully resolved, Chabrol keeps us gripped with his characteristic mastery of technique, constantly shifting between characters and viewpoints, unsettling us with the absence of a definitive perspective. The result is a stylish but understated thriller that beguiles and entertains in equal measure.









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