Merci pour le chocolat Review

Eighteen years ago Marie-Claire Muller, known as "Mika" (Isabelle Huppert), the MD of a Swiss chocolate company, and André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), an acclaimed concert pianist, were briefly married. In between, André married Lisbeth, who bore a son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) and later died in a car accident. Now Mika and André are marrying again.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), a teenage piano student, learns from her mother that she was nearly accidentally switched for Guillaume at birth. Intrigued by the possibility that she might be André's daughter, especially as she is a pianist too, she makes contact with the Polonski family. She is welcomed and quickly finds a kindred spirit in André. But when Jeanne spots Mika acting strangely, she wonders if Lisbeth really died accidentally by falling asleep at the wheel, or was she drugged...?

Of the French "New Wave" directors who emerged in the late 50s and early 60s, Truffaut is dead and Godard and Rivette have been frequently marginalised (and often undistributed in the UK). Claude Chabrol, along with Eric Rohmer, has been the one who has his films most frequently shown in Britain, probably as they are (as were Truffaut's films) much more classical in style and recognisable in genre than those of their contemporaries. Chabrol and Rohmer co-wrote a 1957 book on Hitchcock. Chabrol has been most obviously influenced by the Master, as he too mostly works in the thriller/suspense genre, but both men make films that are tightly constructed beneath a seemingly discursive surface, and are driven by character and dialogue rather than superficial action.

Merci pour le chocolat, based on a novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong, is an enjoyably stylish variation on his favourite themes. (The subtitles translate the title as Nightcap, but Artificial Eye are marketing the film under its original French title.) Another recurring Chabrolian motif is food and drink: meals are often arenas for psychological battles. In this film, a foodstuff may even be a murder weapon. Isabelle Huppert, making her sixth film for the director, is superb as Mika. She is the perfect hostess, charming and solicitous, but with a splinter of ice in her heart. Jacques Dutronc underplays his role considerably, generously giving the limelight to Huppert's much showier role. But don't be fooled: towards the end of the film (which I won't reveal of course) we see that André is very much Mika's soulmate. Anna Mouglalis more than holds her own against the two older actors, though Rodolphe Pauly can't overcome an underwritten role.

Merci pour le chocolat is Chabrol's fifty-third film, and it's a most stylish and enjoyable entertainment. It subtly increases its grip on the audience right up to a quietly devastating long-held final shot that extends some way into the end credits. By now Chabrol has so refined his style that it seems effortless. Like the substance it's named after, this film is delightful on the surface but conceals a bitter aftertaste.

Artificial Eye's DVD has as good a transfer as we have come to expect. It's anamorphic in a ratio of 16:9 (not 1.85:1 as it says on the box), sharp and colourful with strong blacks and virtually devoid of artefacts. However, I'm not convinced it's in the correct ratio. Evidence for this: every previous Chabrol film I've seen has been in 1.66:1, though of course this might be an exception for whatever reason. Secondly, the making-of footage include extracts from the film and several shots through the camera's viewfinder, and these are all in the narrower ratio. In 16:9 (or 1.75:1 as it would be in a cinema) the film certainly doesn't look too awkwardly cropped apart from one or two shots, though it's so tightly composed that it's clear that it shouln't be shown any wider!

The end credits state that Merci pour le chocolat has a Dolby Digital soundtrack. Artificial Eye's disc is in Dolby Surround. I doubt this film would benefit much from a 5.1 mix, as it's very much driven by dialogue which all comes through the centre channel. The surrounds are used mostly for Mathieu Chabrol's score and some ambient sounds: a ship's foghorn during the opening credits and, in a key later scene, passing cars. There are sixteen chapter stops and the English subtitles are locked. The 15 certificate on the packaging is a puzzle: the film itself only rates a PG and there was anything in the extras that could raise the certificate, I missed it.

Artificial Eye (via MK2, the film’s producers) have been more generous with extras than with others of their releases. First off is a trailer, in 16:9 anamorphic and mono sound. This is brief (1:29) and very contrasty and washed out. Much of it uses a cobweb motif that presumably features in the original novel (given its title) but not really in the film itself. The making-of featurette is a 26-minute on-set documentary – made for TV by MK2. Chabrol, who has a pipe seemingly permanently fixed between his teeth, comes across as affable and relaxed on set – as he should be, given the number of films he’s made! There are interviews with the leading cast and crew. Isabelle Huppert’s interview (full-frame) overlaps slightly with the featurette; at 7:08 it’s a bit longer and more in-depth than is usually the case. Anna Mouglalis’s screen test shows her and Rodolphe Pauly playing three scenes, which are then followed by their equivalents in the finished film. It runs 10:28 in total and is anamorphic: the video test footage in 4:3, the film extracts in 1.66:1. The video material is colour-smeared and heavily artefacted, but I doubt you could expect much better as it wasn’t originally intended for public consumption. (It should be noted that all the above extras, apart from the trailer, contain major spoilers. Watch the film before you view the extras.) There’s also an interesting text interview with Chabrol, where amongst other matters he discusses the differences in tone between his films, particularly between this one and his earlier collaborations with Huppert, La Cérémonie (much darker) and Rien ne va plus. The final extras are biographies of the director and the major cast, with filmographies obviously derived from the IMDB. It simply goes to show how prolific Huppert and Chabrol have been.

Chabrol’s fans – and there are many of them – will no doubt want to see this film, which shows a veteran director in good form. Despite some quibbles, the picture quality is good, the sound up to the task and there are some interesting extras.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 17:40:40

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