Movie review, 'Merci pour la Chocolat'

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Claude Chabrol, longtime master of the French domestic thriller, has made few better than "Merci pour la Chocolat," his chillingly exact portrait of a "perfect" family torn apart by what seems the perfect murder. The film, based on an American crime novel by Charlotte Armstrong, is a near-masterpiece. It's an impeccable study in perversity and a thriller with almost no on-screen violence, few conventional suspense sequences and a surface so deceptively serene and exquisitely composed - a milieu of effortless luxury with a soundtrack of Liszt and Chopin - that all the dark, deadly currents seem initially buried out of sight.

The movie, which earned Chabrol the 2000 Prix Louis Delluc, an even more rare and prestigious film prize than the French Oscar (or "Cesar"), is another of his cool vivisections of prestige and privilege. Set mostly on a grand lakeside estate in Lausanne, Switzerland, it's about a purely evil woman who looks and acts like a domestic saint: Isabelle Huppert as Marie-Claire Muller-Polonski, or "Mika," an heiress who runs a Swiss chocolate factory, is married (for the second time) to a famous concert pianist, Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), and is world-famous for her family's gourmet chocolate - which she may have used to kill her husband's other wife.

Chabrol, always the master film portraitist of bourgeois rituals, begins "Merci pour la Chocolat" with a wedding. It's Mika's second marriage to Andre, whom she first briefly married and divorced 18 years ago and now has captured again. At the reception we learn, primarily from an elderly family friend and gossip Dufreigne (Michel Robin), that Andre was married in the intervening years to a woman, Lisbeth, who died in a tragic car accident while they were staying at Mika's estate. We also learn that Andre has a teenage son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), and that there is a local legend that Guillaume may have been switched at birth in the maternity hospital with another newborn child, a girl named Jeanne Pollet.

Soon afterward we meet Jeanne (played by ravishing newcomer Anna Mouglalis), a bright-eyed beauty who acts as our guide and detective, and whose doctor-mother, Louise (Brigitte Catillon), and boyfriend, Axel (Mathieu Simonet), both work at the local forensics crime lab. Jeanne has never before heard the maternity-ward-switch story - which she immediately compares to another movie, Etienne Chatiliez's hit 1987 baby-swapping comedy "Life is a Long Quiet River" - but she's deeply moved, especially since she, like Andre, is a classical pianist and, as she learns later, also a near double for Andre's dead second wife, Lisbeth.

Relentless and irresistible, Jeanne shows up at the Muller-Polonski estate, talks Andre into receiving her - they start working over her competition piece, Liszt's "Funerailles," on the piano - and, at the instigation of instantly hospitable Mika, stays for supper, after which she observes, unseen, Mika deliberately spilling a nightcap of chocolate in a thermos she's prepared for Guillaume. The action exposes the contradictions of this perilously balanced household - the disheveled addict-artist-husband, his rich, enabling wife and their sullen son -and the nightcap, Jeanne learns after a lab analysis by Axel, was laced with a sleeping drug. From there, the movie turns into a battle of wits and wills between the idealist Jeanne and her smiling, friendly, ever-gracious hostess, who may be a murderess.

The plot is highly unlikely - the Armstrong novel that Chabrol and co-scenarist Caroline Eliacheff ("La Ceremonie") adapted is called "The Chocolate Cobweb" - but its narrative style is flawless, its actors supremely convincing. None more so than Huppert, who has starred in five other films for Chabrol, including the classics "Violette Noziere" (1978), where she played a daughter who poisoned her parents, and "La Ceremonie" (1995), where she played a maid's friend who helped slaughter her employers. One of the greatest of all French star actresses, Huppert can play characters in almost any key, but she has a genius for portraying evil. She shows it without qualms, with a pacific expression and with pale, calm, inquisitive eyes - as if, in the worlds she inhabits, it is the most natural thing in the world to kill a parent, an employer or, in this case, a rival for one's husband.

Perhaps it is. For Chabrol - from his first film, 1958's "Le Beau Serge," through his peerless crime dramas of the late '60s (including "La Femme Infidele," just remade into Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful") to "L'Enfer," "La Ceremonie" and now "Merci pour la Chocolat" - the French Bourgeosie have always been capable of the most hideous crimes and appalling hypocrisy. Like his fellow suspense masters and lifelong models Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, whom he evokes once more in this film, Chabrol likes to turn a cold eye on cruelty.

But neither Violette nor the postmistress in "La Ceremonie," both based at least partly on real-life murderesses, are as scary as Mika, whose actions seem entirely unimpeded by morality. Evil, Chabrol and Huppert suggest once again, is not necessarily a deviation. Sometimes, it just is. And in this case, Mika's evil is inextricable from what seems her good: the self-sacrificing way she cares for her family, guests and company.

How deep does the chaos go? "Merci pour la Chocolat" beautifully mines the vein of ambiguities and double appearances here. It is a movie about the gradual erosion of life's seeming certainties, and it's also about the destructive immorality that may lie beneath the most exquisitely composed veneer. As we watch "Chocolat," this great director and his great actress, Huppert, convince us: Evil is.

4 stars (out of 4)
"Merci pour la Chocolat"

Directed by Claude Chabrol; written by Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff, based on the novel "The Chocolate Cobweb" by Charlotte Armstrong; photographed by Renato Berta; edited by Monique Fardoulis; art direction by Yvan Niclass; original music by Matthieu Chabrol; produced by Marin Karmitz. An Empire Pictures release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; 773-871-6604. French; English subtitled. Running time: 1:39. No MPAA rating (families cautioned: mature thematic material).
Marie-Claire "Mika" Muller-Polonski - Isabelle Huppert
Andre Polonski - Jacques Dutronc
Jeanne Pollet - Anna Mouglalis
Guillaume Polonski - Rodolphe Pauly
Dufreigne - Michel Robin
Louise Pollet - Brigitte Catillon Axel - Mathieu Simonet

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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