Claude Chabrol – the late, great – is another of my favorite directors. Incredibly prolific, he’s probably best known for his role in the inception of the French New Wave, but his filmography spans much beyond that. Alongside another great, earlier French director, Clouzot, he has been called a “French Hitchcock.”
Merci Pour le Chocolat has things going for it off the bat other than Chabrol’s direction. For one, Isabelle Huppert is the lead, and she rocks. Claude’s son, Mathieu composes the score and, like many of his father’s film, it’s a perfect fit. Regardless, the film left a fairly dry taste in my mouth. In an interview, Chabrol says it’s about “perversion.” Maybe not the kind you are thinking of (you pervert), but a different, less sexually-charged and explicit type.
Huppert plays Mika, the daughter of a chocolate mogul and current owner of said estate. She marries, at the beginning of the film, Andre (Jacques Dutronc) a piano virtuoso. Past history tells us that Mika and Andre have been friends for some time and that his wife died in a fatal car accident following a night at Mika’s house. Enter Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis). Jeanne is convinced, through a strange hospital series of events, that she may actually be Andre’s daughter. Jeanne is a pianist herself. She intrudes on Mike and Andre’s house and tells her story. Instead of rebuffing her, Andre takes her under his wing and begins teaching her the piano, much to the jealousy of his actual (presumably so) son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly).
The film becomes a thriller of sorts as Jeanne begins to suspect that Mika is trying to poison someone with her chocolate. The standard-issue questions arise: who is she trying to kill? Why? Or is Jeanne just nuts?
Chabrol’s direction makes this non-standard. The script hides its exposition and there are few, if any, truly suspenseful moments. No surprise for one of his films, which usually sacrifice camera-driven and plot-point tension for examinations of internal grief and bewildering motives. His more successful films (Le Boucher, This Man Must Die, La Ceremonie) scour the protagonist/antagonist (usually a combo) and stay with them throughout – forcing the viewer into an analysis of their character more so than of their actions.
Chocolat attempts to do that, but its melodramatic plotting and too-hidden narrative fail it. In the end we’re left with a perversion of too much love and not enough logic. It’s certainly a Chabrol film, but Chabrol-light.
Nonetheless, all of his traits are intact: his oddly high-key lighting. His floating camera which, when not floating, tends to frame in lingering close-up. His obsession with classical music, upper-class lifestyles that crumble as we watch, and boring, art-filled, white-walled locations. One of his favorite moves is to push the camera forward, ala a POV shot, and then have the character walk into frame, shattering the illusion of the POV. It fails in this film and here’s why: we aren’t tied to any one POV. There are too many (mostly Jeanne’s and Mika’s, but also the supporting cast’s) that compete. It lessens the power of this technique, where in a film like Blow-Up (where I first saw it), we’ve been so tied to one viewpoint that when that POV is proved as false it tears down our illusions of the rest of the film.
Think of it this way: look at something. Anything. Then imagine yourself walking into that “shot” (sight). It would blow your mind. It’s impossible. Well, cinematic values are the same. When a POV is established and we are told that it is through a character’s eyes we, naive audience that we are, believe it. It’s part of the power a director holds over us. He/she is so easily able to convince and so easily able to lie that one false (whether intentionally, as in this case, or otherwise) step makes us question the entirety of what we’ve been seeing.