For more than 40 years, French New Wave figure Claude Chabrol -- who first achieved renown in the U.S. for his fourth film, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) -- has been making thrillers of moral ambiguity. If his style is more austere and less immediately "entertainment"-oriented than that of his idol, Hitchcock, his thematic concerns are no less rich.
Like his underrated 1987 Cry of the Owl (from Patricia Highsmith's novel), Merci Pour le Chocolat is adapted from an American thriller and deftly transplanted to Europe -- in this case, the source is The Chocolate Cobweb by the less-well-remembered Charlotte Armstrong. And, also like Cry of the Owl, this 2000 production shows Chabrol at the top of his form -- or almost the top: The film is a masterpiece of nuance and characterization, marred only by an inexplicable, utterly distracting blunder at the very end. (Oddly, the subtitles on the opening credits give Nightcap as the film's English title, but that seems to have been dropped.)
Chabrol wastes no time setting up the backstory. In fact, if you miss the first few minutes or don't pay very close attention to the fleeting fragments of dialogue in the opening sequence, you may miss some crucial exposition, so just for the record: At the wedding reception of internationally renowned concert pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) and chocolate heiress Mika Muller (Chabrol favorite Isabelle Huppert), we learn that the two married each other once before, when they were very young, much to the dismay of Mika's father. They got a divorce but stayed close, even after André married an artist named Lisabeth, who then died in an auto crash. Now, about a decade later, Mika -- who has taken over the family business on her father's death -- is finally reunited with André.
News of the wedding triggers an accidental revelation for a young piano student named Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis): She learns that when she was born, there was a temporary mix-up at the hospital. As a result of confusing abbreviations on name tags (Pollet, Polonski), she was almost given to André and Lisabeth, whose son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), was born the same day.
Because neither of Jeanne's parents ever displayed any musical talent, not surprisingly she begins to wonder -- despite her mother's not-altogether-convincing reassurances -- whether maybe the baby switch was not resolved correctly. She can't resist intruding on André. Although he maintains that there is no chance she is his daughter, he is charmed by her and agrees to help her prepare for an upcoming competition.
Guillaume is jealous and resents her sudden appearance in his household; Mika seems more welcoming, but very quickly we notice that Mika's manner is ... odd. There may be mal within this bonbon femme.
Huppert has a broad range of types she can play, but her greatest talent -- one exploited in earlier Chabrol films such as La Cérémonie and The Story of Women -- is portraying seemingly friendly sociopaths, characters like Mika, who may seem normal to everyone onscreen but whose smiles turn to grim, icy expressions the moment no one but the cinema audience can see her. Well, no one except the cinema audience and, early in the film, Jeanne, who accidentally spies a reflection of Mika behaving in a surreptitious and strange manner.
What is really going on in Mika's mind? Is she a secret conniver? Could she have possibly murdered Lisabeth as part of a cold lifelong plan to regain the family that should have been hers all along? And what is the story of Jeanne's and Guillaume's parentage?
In tone, Chabrol's films range from relatively lightweight trifles such as Coq au Vin (1985) to darker character studies like La Femme Infidèle (1969) to off-puttingly cold, distanced works such as The Story of Women (1988). Merci Pour le Chocolat falls somewhere between the last two, its point of view moving back and forth between its frighteningly chilly central character and its other, more sympathetic characters.
Although Chabrol gets excellent work from Dutronc (Place Vendôme) and relative newcomer Mouglalis, Merci Pour le Chocolat belongs primarily to him and Huppert. A few moments seem like conscious Hitchcock homage -- a forward tracking shot as we go into Mika's mind for a flashback echoes a similar move in Vertigo -- but the long final shot is pure Chabrol.
As for the film's biggest flaw, the big suspense setpiece during the last ten minutes makes absolutely no sense, with the characters behaving so absurdly that one wonders whether the scene was badly recut by the producers. If so, it's all the weirder, because the problem could be fixed simply by snipping two or three lines of dialogue. If there is some subtle aesthetic rationale for this, I've been unable to find it. This isn't enough to invalidate all the wonderful stuff that has gone before, but it is frustrating and confusing to see a director be so totally in control for 90 minutes, only to appear to lose it in the last ten.