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The prolific Claude Chabrol didn't exclusively direct mystery thrillers, but he made so many that they sometimes blur in the mind. It's easy to find great recommendations from his list of films; right now I'm thinking of his first picture Le beau Serge and his later drama about a crime during the resistance, Story of Women. The latter show stars Isabelle Huppert, who made her first film in 1971 and is still at the forefront of her profession.
Chabrol's Merci pour le Chocolat of 2000 is one of his more successful later films; it's well known in the United States under that name but for this Blu-ray is being released with a UK export title, Nightcap. The film is an excellent gateway picture into Chabrol's quiet world of domestic crime.
Acclaimed pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronic) remarries his first wife Marie-Claire Muller, or Miki (Isabelle Huppert). She's the owner of a prosperous and established chocolate company. Andrés second wife Lisbeth died in a car crash; he has a grown son by her, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Immediately after the remarriage the family home is visited by young Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mougalis), a student pianist. But she's also come to see André because a maternity ward mix-up when she was born places some doubt about who is André's real child, Guillaume or Jeanne. Mika pays a call on Jeanne's mother Louise (Brigitte Catillon), the director of a lab that does crime work. Apparently no mix-up occurred yet Mika seems bothered just the same. She suggests that Jeanne stay over to study with her husband, and treats her with such measured courtesy that the younger woman becomes suspicious. Sure enough, Jeanne spots Mika purposely spilling a thermos of chocolate, so they can clean it up together...
Alfred Hitchcock believed in keeping his stories simple -- when in Switzerland, one must work chocolate into the movie somewhere. Unlike Hitchcock, Chabrol doesn't mind an opening that buries us in ten minutes of unbroken exposition. Wedding guests at the reception talk like they're auditioning for roles on "Murder, She Wrote, discussing Mika and André's marital history and the fact that they were still close friends even when he was married to the late Lisbeth. As soon as that's over we get an Expository Breakfast with the Pollet family, in which the mechanics of the possible baby-swap eighteen years before are given a thorough airing.
But those scenes also give us time to evaluate the main players, especially the composed, almost serene Mika. The mystery that follows is relatively easy to solve but fascinating because the characters are so richly drawn. They're also wealthy-rich. The Polonskis live in quiet graciousness on a hill overlooking the lake; André spends his days at his twin grand pianos. Miki is the perfect image of relaxed courtesy and manners. A gorgeous piano student practically moves in with her husband, and instead of showing jealousy Mika remains inviting and encouraging. As it is we find that there's nothing between André and Jeanne except the music.
Chabrol specializes in quiet, mostly civilized mysteries. As is his desire we're soon absorbed in these people, even though the story particulars are as confected as Miki's hot chocolate. They're all wealthy professionals. Miki can be judged by her neat, very French office with its wallpaper and fancy table instead of a desk. She fends off the petty concerns of her manager Dufreigne (Michel Robin) and keeps her kitchen spotless as she personally mixes her chocolate concoctions. So why is she so selectively clumsy, sometimes? Why does it seem that her spilling boiling water on Guillaume's foot is no accident? Some of the incidentals in Nightcap are fairly mechanical. The real mystery is within the characters.
It also has to be admitted that the characters are interesting because they're so beautiful. At 47 Isabelle Huppert looks great. Singer-songwriter Jacques Dutronic is an impressive screen presence and more than convincing as a top pianist, especially with the screenplay's sensitive music-oriented dialogue. Gorgeous Anna Mouglais is so poised and calm that only her excitement at learning about her questionable background tips us off that she's indeed only eighteen. Her character Jeanne is placed in an odd position, accepting the Polonskis' hospitality. She's keen to receive the benefit of André's coaching but cautious of Mika and very aware of Guillaume's jealousy. He's always being asked why he hasn't inherited his father's talent, and along comes this girl who seems to be taking his place in the family. The bright and ambitious Jeanne only makes the brooding, TV-watching Guillaume appear more alienated.
Miki seems only slightly frustrated that André takes sleeping pills, and puts off making love with her. She seems more concerned by her memories of what happened the night Lisbeth (Lydia Andrei) died, a number of years ago. These concerns lead to a cinematic luxury for Chabrol -- a flashback. In terms of predictability, the show has one very happy development: Jeanne has a boyfriend (Mathieu) who unknowingly delivers her to the Polonski house, where her life might be placed in danger. He does not magically show up to perform a rescue. And no, there are no guns in the house.
Claude Chabrol's mysteries can end in bloodshed, but not necessarily. As the show's threads come together it begins to resemble the old Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven, in which Gene Tierney's 'perfect' dream girlfriend harbors murderous drives nobody else can detect or understand. Freed from the obligation to end in a bloodbath or action set piece, Chabrol makes Nightcap into an entertaining puzzle about a desperate person living a 'perfect' life.
By this date Chabrol's filmmaking had long been a family affair, with the delicate music of his son Matthieu Chabrol again providing the music score. The lush cinematography benefits from overcast days that seem to brighten colors. Never going for a visual effect that draws attention to directorial technique, Chabrol nevertheless slips in angles that betray the truth about what his characters are thinking. It's like suppressed Hitchcock -- one can't always trust what people say, but to know what they're feeling just watch their eyes react.
The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of Nightcap (Merci pour le Chocolat) is as elegant as the film itself. The transfer is rich and lush, with comfortable flesh tones that invite us to share the problems of these well-to-do folks up at Lake Lausanne. Most of the soundtrack is quiet dialogue, so things like a dropped pan are a jolt; the piano sequences are handled with finesse.
All dialogue is in French; the removable English subs are easy to read. The only extras are Cohen's new promo and a short insert flyer essay by Peter Tonguette. I hope that Chabrol fans eager to see this show don't miss this one because of the title change. Even the IMDB, which now frustratingly lists most foreign films by their English titles, lists this as Merci pour le Chocolat.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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