In the opening sequence of Claude Chabrol's sly, supple film, Marie-Claire "Mika" Muller (Isabelle Huppert), heiress to a wealthy Swiss chocolate-making fortune, meets and greets at a reception following her second marriage to Andre Polonski, a famous pianist. Around her, expensive tongues wag with discreet gossip about the couple's separation; the mysterious death of Polonski's second wife, Lisbeth; and the viability of the remarriage.
Mika holds herself aloof, her face a mask of self-satisfied inscrutability laced with the hint of a slightly derisive smile as she plots with her accommodating stepson, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), to slip away home, a quiet, graceful, well-ordered universe designed to facilitate Polonski's piano playing. Smooth and eager-to-please, continually effacing herself, Mika makes the trains run on time, and when Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), a promising young pianist who has just learned by way of yet another loose tongue that she may have been switched at birth with Polonski's son, shows up uninvited at the front door, Mika warmly receives her without batting an eyelid—and promptly spills a flask of hot chocolate, the family's nighttime treat, over Jeanne's sweater.
Welcome to the Swiss bourgeoisie, where great wellsprings of underground anxiety, rage and resentment seep through the walls of placid propriety and convention.
Though it's based on a novel by American mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, Merci Pour le Chocolat is a particularly French thriller: genre serves more as a frame for philosophical speculation (in this case, the middle-class psyche) than it does for action. No one dies onscreen—the nearest thing to spilled blood is the stain of chocolate spreading over a floor—and nothing seems to burst the bubble of complacency in which this family floats.
The story proceeds by minuscule tonal shifts and barely perceptible changes in the atmospheric temperature from touches of ghoulish comedy—Polonski and the protg "who makes him feel young again" perfecting her performance of a Liszt funeral march—to the creepy stillness of death that pervades the house. Chabrol teases us with physical resemblances: Guillaume looks like his father; Jeanne like the long-dead Lisbeth. (Huppert, for her part, is magnificent, an enigmatic echo of her twisted musician in Michael Haneke's horribly grandiloquent The Piano Teacher.)
In the end, what matters is not so much what Mika has done or will do, or even whom she has fooled, as the willingness of those in her orbit to fool themselves.
"Instead of loving," she says, "I say, 'I love you,' and people believe it."
Merci Pour le Chocolat screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Edwards Island Cinemas, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 253-2880; www.newportbeachfilmfest.com. Mon., 8:30 p.m. $8.
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