Merci Pour le Chocolat is a typical Claude Chabrol film, a suspense story with the suspense de-emphasized, an elegantly dark look at evil intruding into a world of bourgeois manners and mannerisms, less a whodunit than a why-did-they-do-it, with the answer ultimately withheld. Chabrol perfected his approach — telling stories of perversity wreaking chaos in a fragile society with an eye to behavioral detail, while eliminating (or ignoring) the pleasures of genre conventions — some 30 films ago with Le Boucher (1970). He’s always been the most Hitchcockian director to emerge from the New Wave ferment of the late ’50s, but where Hitchcock was gleefully manipulative, Chabrol has been quietly matter-of-fact, with everything stripped down to the ultimate mystery of character.
The film is adapted from The Chocolate Cobweb by American writer Charlotte Armstrong, and like many a mystery novel it has a deceptively complicated plot. It opens with the wedding of Mika Muller-Polonski (Isabelle Huppert), the owner of a Swiss chocolate factory and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), a sad-eyed concert pianist. As it turns out, this is actually a remarriage, as they were married briefly many years earlier, a union which failed for reasons not clear, after which André married Lisbeth and had a son by her named Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Mika and Lisbeth were friends and remained so during Lisbeth’s marriage to André, right up to her death in a car crash, when she fell asleep at the wheel after drinking one of Mika’s suspicious tumblers of chocolate. As usual with Chabrol, you don’t have to be too alert to figure out early on who the tale’s designated culprit is going to be.
Meanwhile a young piano student named Jeanne has reason to believe that she might be André’s daughter, since not only were she and Guillaume born in the same hospital on the same day, but there was also a temporary mix-up with the babies, which was never totally resolved. When she shows up at the Polonski household one day, André is delighted — here’s a beautiful young woman who shares his love of and talent for music — while Mika remains inscrutable behind her usual, brittle middle-class charm and Guillaume is understandably upset.
And so the plot simmers along to its introspective conclusion. Huppert, who still seemed like a fresh-faced ingénue well into her 30s, seems to be having a second career playing blank-faced sociopaths, women who have something vital missing behind their rigidly correct demeanor. As it becomes apparent that a few basic plot points are not going to be resolved, her mysterious crisis becomes the film’s dramatic focal point.
Chabrol, again typically, turns a tale of murder and repercussion into a psychological chamber play, and his restraint will no doubt serve as an impetus for the more analytically minded viewer. He leaves out just enough to provoke one’s tendency to interpret, a satisfying activity even when it’s a too-generous appraisal of what’s actually on the screen.
On the other hand, we’ve been here with him many times before and, after a while, despite all his stylistic gracefulness, less begins to seem like simply less.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.