Dir: Claude Chabrol. France-Switzerland. 2000. 100 mins.
Prod co: MK2 Productions, Cab Productions in association with France 2 Cinema, Le Studio Canal +. Int'l Sales: MK2 Diffusion. Prod: Marin Karmitz. Scr: Caroline Eliacheff, Claude Chabrol based on the novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong. DoP: Renato Berta. Prod des: Yvon Crenn. Ed: Monique Fardoulis. Mus: Matthieu Chabrol. Main cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Anna Mouglalis, Rodolphe Pauly, Brigitte Catillon.
The banality of evil has fascinated writer-director Claude Chabrol for almost forty years. Students of his work will recognise many familiar themes in his latest portrait of a killer but the law of diminishing returns has gradually eroded the commercial appeal of such musings. Merci Pour Le Chocolat is unlikely to broaden the audience much beyond the boundaries of the director's long-term admirers although acclaim for Isabelle Huppert's central performance may win it extra attention.
Top heavy with credulity-straining plot, the tangled tale begins with the marriage of world renowned concert pianist Andre Polonski (Dutronc) to his late wife's sister Marie-Claire (Huppert). Everything in their life seems perfect from their luxurious Swiss home to the happy relationship with Polonski's teenage son Guillaume (Pauly) and the delicious daily chocolate that Marie-Claire prepares with such tender loving care.
This idyllic world is broached by Jeanne (Mouglalis) who has learnt that she may have been accidentally swapped with Guillaume on the day of her birth. A gifted pianist, she bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Polonski's late wife. Unexpectedly welcomed into their home and tutored by Polonski, her presence is the catalyst that sends various skeletons tumbling from the family closet.
Weighted towards establishing the mundane routines of everyday life, Merci Pour Le Chocolat unfolds at a measured pace, leading the viewer on with the subtlest hint that all is not well beneath the calm, implacable surface of these lives.
It is an old-fashioned film that requires patience and a willingness to suspend disbelief that many may not possess. All glacial looks and killer smiles, Huppert's character is just too good to be true, but she continues to earn the benefit of the doubt even as your worst suspicions are confirmed by the twists and turns of the story-line.