With an immensely vast canon of films stretching back to the late 1950s, French director Claude Chabrol has established himself as one of the most industrious and idiosyncratic auteurs in the world of cinema.
Along with idolized celluloid royalty such as Godard and Truffaut, Chabrol shares the honorable distinction of assisting in the launch of the French New Wave and thus helping steer the mighty wheel of film history.
Since those reputable beginnings almost half a century ago, Chabrol’s been busy exhaustively carving out a unique brand of restrained melodrama all his own while exhibiting a proficient penchant for subtle explorations in the peculiar nature of the maligned human psyche.
Likewise, his most recent offering “Merci Pour Le Chocolat” stirs up a quiet homicidal maelstrom of familial chaos that should appeal to both psych majors and soap opera addicts alike.
The film opens with the humble and rather dour remarriage between Andre Polonski — Jacques Dutronc — and Mika, played by accomplished actress and Chabrol-film staple Isabelle Huppert.
Via petty bourgeois gossip exchanged between peripheral characters, we immediately discern that Andre is a celebrated pianist, while Mika is a fairly big wheel at a chocolate factory and now grudgingly lays claim to being both Andre’s first and third wife.
Cut now to 18-year-old piano talent Jeanne Pollet, portrayed by the enchanting Anna Mouglalis, who’s recently unearthed a secret surrounding her origin. It seems that she and Andre’s son Guillaume — Rodolphe Pauly — were briefly switched at birth and then quickly switched back.
Despite Jeanne’s mother’s insistence that this complication was resolved long ago, Jeanne can’t help but ponder the coincidence that she and Andre are both pianists and that she might very well be the daughter of a famous musical prodigy.
Exceedingly curious, Jeanne boldly introduces herself to Andre who, although he dismisses the possibility that he might be Jeanne’s father, is nonetheless charmed by her disposition and offers to tutor her for an upcoming piano competition.
The plot gains even greater complexity as we learn that the death of Andre’s second wife is also cloaked in mystery.
The undeniable appeal of Chabrol’s film can be found within the widely disparate personalities and peculiarities of his characters, as well as in the intriguing implications of their ensuing conflicts.
Lying at the heart of this turmoil is the evident emotional schism born out of the alienating and emotionally detached genius of Andre silently clashing with the lethargy of his talent-deprived son.
While Jeanne increasingly occupies the heart and mind of Andre, she unintentionally widens this father-son rift as Chabrol deftly hints at the peculiar difference between obligatory familial love and sincere affection.
Also explored is the suppressed frustration between dependent “hanger-ons” and brilliant minds, a conflict undoubtedly gnawing at the insides of Mika and Guillaume. Meanwhile, suspense slowly builds as the mystery behind Andre’s prior wife is uncovered
However, “Merci” is hardly a suspense film in that all anxiety spawned from the plot’s murderous elements is almost entirely overshadowed by the intricacies of familial discord.
Halfway through the film, the identity and intent of the murderer is already pretty obvious to us, as well as to the eventual victims. Yet despite this, Chabrol’s characters take surprisingly little action against their fate simply out of politeness.
In the end, it’s the exquisite restraint and skillful subtleties of the acting that linger, particularly those found in the cold sobriety of Huppert and the withdrawn piano-induced inebriation of Dutronc.
In fact, judging from the startling nonchalance with which Andre handles the thrilling climax, I doubt he’d raise an eyebrow if I were to drive my fist into his stomach.
“Merci Pour Le Chocolat” makes its Rochester premiere Friday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. at the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House.
Berg can be reached at email@example.com.