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Merci pour le chocolat

Chocolate manufacturers have almost invariably suffered a cruel fate in literature and film, perhaps because they come to seem as petty and decadent as their precious wares. When fictional chocolate does have some kind of positive connotation, it usually veers down that extremely dubious path of catholicon and, if applicable, aphrodisiac as well. Let's set the matter straight: chocolate is but another drug. True, it may at times so stimulate the brain that some people frankly never recover. But like alcohol, nicotine, or anything else that one allows to shape's one mood and, in so doing, one's personality, chocolate is an excuse for those who need excuses and a pleasure for those whose lives may not have enough of it. Which brings us to this quiet little mystery

We begin with the strangely distant Marie-Claire Muller (Isabelle Huppert) exchanging vows with the just as strangely fatigued André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). Why Polonski and Muller as the protagonists in a French film, albeit one set in this relatively multiethnic city? Are their names intentionally foreign-sounding? Our Muller is an heiress to a formidable chocolate business, which for some Europeans is as plain an accomplishment as her surname suggests. Polonski, on the other hand, while perhaps a reference to another director, is a highly regarded classical pianist. His is also a common name – in Poland, where the most famous of all French pianists was born – and so we again face the quandary, so prevalent in Chabrol, of societal conflict, of an invisible class struggle, of art and its eternity versus the immediate gratification of gold bullion. It is well known that another contemporary director likes to employ bourgeois couples called Anne and George, or variants thereof, upon whom he can inflict the vilest of fates. But what about Chabrol? "I declare you bound, re-bound, if I may be permitted to say, in marriage," says the justice of the peace. "Please exchange rings." "They're the same ones" says Marie-Claire, who goes by Mika, which may remind us not a little of Milka, a German chocolate – but I digress. Yes, Mika and Polonski were, once upon a time, wife and man, nineteen years ago to be exact. Just before, as it were, the pianist decided for reasons that will become painfully clear to us that Mika was not his soul’s mate, and opted to marry the lovely Lisbeth who would bear him his only child Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly) then perish in a mysterious car accident on Guillaume’s tenth birthday. A flashback near the film’s midpoint clarifies the unusual sequence of occurrences that evening, even if what this character remembers is not what the official police report contains. What we do know, and what is reflected in that brief glimpse into a foggy and mysterious past, is that even after their brief marriage and divorce, Polonski and Mika remained so close that it was at Mika’s house that the family was staying at the time, and it was in Mika’s neighborhood that Lisbeth fell asleep at the wheel and skidded off into eternal rest. And it was also Mika who gave Lisbeth the titular cocoa laced with Rohypnol mere minutes before her fatal ride.

Revealing this detail here does not spoil our film, because the same information is made available to the viewer at a proportionally earlier point in Merci pour le chocolat. It seems safe to assume that Mika killed Lisbeth, whether or not she intended to do so. Our task is to determine why she took this course of action, and what, if anything, occupies the black abyss of what is left of her soul. Even in the opening scenes, when Mika listlessly humors guests at her wedding reception then, as if to make amends for such a betrayal, a well-attended public exhibition of Lisbeth’s photography, we sense that she has long since been shunted down a very different track. At the exhibition we move quickly from one photo that appears to be a close-up of thumbs depressing a neck, to Polonski trapped in some imbecilic harangue on politics, to Mika tuning out – there is no other expression – one of her oldest employees and a dear friend of her father’s. With little forewarning – people seem to be quite used to her permanent somnambulism – she walks away and touches someone on the back who appears to be Guillaume. With that touch, which befits a lover much more than a stepmother, we somehow have the premonition that it will not be Guillaume. When it turns out indeed to be Mika's stepson, it is remarkable to note how his perturbation indicates sexual prudishness. Yes, Guillaume has joined the rest of the world in finding something sensual about Isabelle Huppert, hardly a cause for either lamentation or praise. But within the context of the film, it suggests yet another complication that bobs its head upon the surface on account of the only person who sees Mika touch Guillaume at the exhibition, a beautiful eighteen-year-old by the name of Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis).

Jeanne we know from an earlier scene. In it, two very well-to-do middle-aged ladies Pauline (German actress Isolde Barth) and Louise Pollet meet in a posh restaurant where, one gets the impression, they no longer need to look at the menu. Apart from reveling in their poshness, they are also awaiting their teenage children, Jeanne and Axel, who are openly dating but “probably playing tennis right now” (the hint is clear, even to the mothers in denial). When the duo finally cruises in still perspiring from, well, their afternoon workout, Pauline is reminded of an announcement from today’s paper regarding the Muller-Polonski wedding. What happens next is so preposterous (Barth's pronounced accent in French imbues the whole scene with an urgent gravity, as if the foreign press were reporting a scandal) it could only be likely: apparently Jeanne, a budding young pianist, was born at the same hospital on the same day as Guillaume Polonski. Owing to a dearth in bracelets, only the first three letters of their surnames were written and – and here I admit to having laughed myself silly, and not only at the thought of a Swiss hospital lacking supplies. In any case, what we may say is that some doubts arise as to Jeanne's parentage, all the more so since her legal father has been dead for many years; Louise's shockingly defensive reaction – any self-assured parent would have mocked the whole notion – only serves to deepen Jeanne's and our suspicions. One thing leads to another and Jeanne shows up on the Polonskis' doorstep eager to meet the great master. In no small coincidence, she also happens to have a piano competition in Budapest in a couple of weeks and could benefit from as much private tutoring as possible. Polonski, of course, is in that regard all too happy to oblige. And although he makes a point of verbally dismissing Jeanne's paternity queries, his treatment of her indicates otherwise, perhaps because she reminds him of Lisbeth, whose gestures culled from photographs in Guillaume's room she begins to ape.

Not every secret that subtends Merci pour le chocolat is revealed, because life does not show all its cards, at least not all at once. We may think we know what took place that lonely night, but the versions we get cannot be considered in any way definitive. There are many delicate, observant moments that illuminate our cast in unpredictable ways: consider when Dutronc, a marvelously understated actor, thoroughly convinces Jeanne that he may believe her story, then turns to Guillaume and speaks exactly like a father who has no doubt about his offspring; when Mika goes to see Louise in her office for one of the tensest tea-drinking scenes in recent memory; or when a character turns off the lights in bed only to have a close-up reveal a face much more awake in the darkness than the light, as if the face and the brain behind it thrived in the shadows of human motives. A couple of details from the telltale flashback, details specifically concerning Guillaume, also imply what may have happened and what may yet occur. Yet as Polonski himself admits, Jeanne's distinct resemblance to Lisbeth has as much to do with the good memory it generates as with any biological probability. Almost anyone can resemble anyone else if a few key mannerisms are copied; the more eccentric the mannerisms available, the more convincing the understudy. And we haven't even mentioned what piece Jeanne will be playing in Budapest.

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