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Merci Pour le Chocolat (Claude Chabrol) 2000


    I usually avoid plot spoilers in my writing, but such safeguards are really a moot point with Merci Pour le Chocolat. Claude Chabrol has here a thriller without thrills, but that’s okay. It seems as if the movie is stuck in the same drugged up haze as the family of Mika (Isabelle Huppert), the villain of the piece, who occasionally puts Rohypnol in their hot chocolate so that she might numb them to the world. The end of Merci’s prologue has Mika’s husband telling her, “You’re the devil incarnate,” and there’s nothing in the film that for a moment disputes it. At first this distance from the excitement inherent in the story is alienating, but before long it becomes apparent that Chabrol only uses this device instead of some kind of suspense movie slickness that might allow us to get into a catatonic movie-induced trance of our own. The only moments of spontaneity feel as if they’re totally subconscious. They manifest themselves in Freudian slips and thoughtless comments. Since we’re kept outside of the emotional sphere of the movie by its performances, its tendency to reveal plot twists before any red herrings can surface, and its repetitive structure, we begin to look at the film as a something other than a conventional black widow’s tale (though it’s certainly one of those: an afghan on her couch is this spider’s web).


    Mika, who has reclaimed her ex-husband by killing off her competition, is insanely manipulative, and there’s something perversely comic in her family’s complete obliviousness to her machinations. They usually just sit in the background while she goes about plotting against them, and even go so far as to provide musical accompaniment for their own spiraling fate in the form of a funeral march. The movie gains whatever momentum it musters not from the accumulation of peril or the realization that Mika’s doing what she is, but instead from the gradually revealed hints about what it is that makes her tick. She’s always preternaturally chipper, and blatantly says, “Keeping up appearances is all that counts.” Her dogma is that “people shouldn’t suffer” and she seems to be entirely willing to dull the pain of those around her to the point where they can’t feel anything. She takes the weight of the world upon her shoulders, running her family’s chocolate business (the film takes a moment to point out that chocolate releases endorphins that make you happy) and still finding time to dote on her fully-grown stepson. The movie tosses out some shallow excuses for this behavior, but I’m not sure we’re really supposed to buy them. They seem to be fairly poor excuses for her perversity, especially in a film that so melodramatically inflates the importance of one’s parentage. What Chabrol’s trying to tell us exactly with this study of Mika’s perversity, I can’t say, but I certainly found Merci Pour le Chocolat to be a wry examination of the world that let her carry on unchecked.


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Jeremy Heilman