Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Rodolphe Pauly, Anna Mouglalis, Brigitte Catillon | Directed by: Claude Chabrol | Produced by: Marin Karmitz | Written by: Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff, Charlotte Armstrong | Distributor: First Run Features (with Empire Pictures)
“Merci pour Le Chocolat (NightCap)” is ostensibly about the downfall of a manipulative wounded envious woman. Theoretically, this kind of film should make the viewer jump for joy to see justice so neatly done. Well, so much for theories. This film is uncomfortable and unnerving at best and a cultural low-point at worst. It’s not so much that we hate to see such a creepy individual get her come-uppance. But generally, a movie viewer likes to be on someone’s side in a movie. And the rest of the characters in this subtitled french film are almost as bad as the protagonist.
When the film begins, Jeanne, a young pianist finds out that for one small moment she was actually switched at birth with the son of a famous concert pianist. The pianist is married to Mika Muller, the head of a Swiss chocolate factory. This bit of serendipitous news falls like rain from heaven to a young girl who obviously has never felt attached to her now-dead father.
Isabelle Huppert seems to be going through a stretch in her career where she wants to explore unpleasant French women on the verge of madness. Those are brave roles to take; don’t get me wrong. But this film is so similar to the Pianist in so many ways that one can only wonder if madness only occurs in two or three highly cultured ways. Of course, great art usually concerns itself with the tragedies of the rich and educated. We watch leaders and social or political statesmen in movies like “Hamlet” or “The Insider” too because tragedy is more heart-felt when the tragic figure has it all and loses it all. But here is another Isabelle Huppert character who has it all—but really doesn’t.
The movie does a great job at showing us how envy eats away at people. Everyone in the film seems to be inflicted with it. The two most highly afflicted are Mika and Jeanne—the young girl who may or may not have been switched. No one is satisfied with the love they receive from their family. Everyone is glomming onto some one else whose love they covet. But only Huppert’s character goes overboard, past the limits of propriety.
A word about propriety here: When the young girl enters the pianist’s life, I found myself wondering why she was being so impolite in pushing herself onto a family that she obviously makes uncomfortable. On the one hand, it could be genes calling to genes and the genetic pull to see her father is so overpowering, she is willing to disrupt lives to have the father she considers absolutely perfect for her. But on the other hand, her pushiness turned me off. Her effect on Guillaume, the pianist’s son—one of only two truly sane people in this entire movie, the other being Jeanne’s mother—is so heart-breaking, one cannot truly be on her side even if she is uncovering an age-old crime.
When the film ends, we are faced with a weeping character who has lost the game. “God, it seems, or some unseen ultra-powerful force has trumped her with His own little nightcap. She is not going to go gentle into that good night.” And we feel this cosmic betrayal. The tightly controlled, tightly held world which she has built as a fortress to protect her frail ego all falls apart before her because of some droll—ah the French!—cosmic coincidence. Her failure and heartache is worse than that felt by the mother of Cinderella’s stepsisters or Rumpelstilskin.
The film is a good study in envy, no doubt. And there is no sex or profanity to speak of—with the exception of a small scene in bed. It would make a good object lesson about the effects of gossip or telling old news. And it would certainly add fuel to the “Should the adoptee be told about her real family” fire? But this film is rough-going. As soon as the viewer sits down to watch, he or she will want to leave. Even such stalwart moviegoers like myself who can tolerate a bit of emotional discomfort. Alas I couldn’t leave. I had already plunked down my nine bucks.
In French with English subtitles.