Friday, April 23, 2010

Thank You for the Chocolat (Merci Pour Le Chocolat) -- hypocrisy, suspicion and wariness

Director: Claude Chabrol, 2000. (NR)

The opening two chapters give us some clues for understanding the tone of this film set in the French-speaking Swiss city of Lausanne. The French title is easily translated as "Thank You for the Chocolate." So when the subtitle shows up on screen as "Nightcap" it is clear that this will be an enigmatic and elusive film.

The first scene shows two middle-aged people getting married in a small civil ceremony. Marie-Claire "Mika" Muller (Isabelle Huppert) is marrying Andre Polanski (Jacques Dutronc). Through side conversations between bit players, we learn that she is the well-to-do and cultured heiress of a Swiss chocolate company, while he is a famous and respected concert pianist. What we also discover slowly is that this is their second marriage to each other.

The second scene, meanwhile, presents four different characters eating lunch beside the lake. And these seem totally unrelated to Mike, Andre or Andre's son Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly). Yet one of these four, Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), is the same age, exactly, as Guillaume, and she will enter the Muller-Polanski family as a stranger who forces long-held secrets to rise to the surface.

Chabrot has been regarded by many as the French Alfred Hitchcock, and this film is certainly Hitchcockian. A slow and elegant psychological thriller, it weaves an intricate plot to a surprising and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. It is a forensic character study of a family that appears to have it all: money, beauty, and artistic talent.

Mika's daily routine, of ritual, or making a special nightcap of handmade hot chocolate (hence the title in both French and English) supposedly underscores her love for her husband and step-son. This warmth is further "apparent" in her acceptance of Jeanne who unexpectedly shows up at their large estate. Yet, underlying this warmth is a coldness that comes out in the subtle looks that Huppert casts at certain points. The love is a mask that hides something darker within. Her happiness is merely a facade.

Chabrot paints a portrait of hypocrisy through Mika. We deplore this sin when we see it, as Jesus did. He vented righteous anger on the Pharisees who were the champions of hypocrisy during his earthly life (e.g., see the seven woes in Matthew 23). Yet, we often fail to see this same sin when it exists in our own lives. Whenever we feel the need to hide, to put up a defense, a mask, we are becoming hypocritical. Projecting false love when we are cold and uncaring is a classic form. The main antidote to this insidious sin is openness and transparency. Being who we are. Saying what we think. All in love, of course (Eph. 4:15).

At one point Mika says to Andre, "Instead of loving, I say 'I love you', and people believe me. I have real power in my mind. I calculate everything." She is fooling those around her, as her husband points out:. But she retorts, "Some people fool themselves."

As the characters are developed and the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Andre's second wife died in a car accident that was drug related. Sleep-inducing drugs become central to the plot. Accidents and clumsiness compound the narrative, so that it is unclear what is calculated and what is chaotic. Further doubt descends on the underlying identity of the characters themselves.

When Jeanne is accepted into the family mansion, Andre discovers that she is a talented and aspiring pianist herself, unlike his aimless son, who is threatened by her presence. A significant clue to this mystery is in the chocolate-brown throw-wrap that Mika is crocheting. Hanging over the back of the couch, it looks like a spider's web waiting to snare her latest victim. And the emotionally enigmatic Mika could be the spider at the center of this web. Are the accidents really accidents? Or are they coldly calculated means to an end? Indeed, does Mika have a deep-seated psychosis crying out for help?

We all harbor sin within. Sin leads to guilt, a feeling that we have done wrong. Often we try to hide or ignore this feeling of guilt. But it comes out, in many different ways. We can find ourselves doing things that cause us to be caught out. Only in confessing the sin can we find mercy and freedom (Prov. 28:13). God promises to forgive if we accept his grace (1 Jn. 1:9). If we are crying out for help, it is but a prayer away.

The mood of suspicion and Mika's claim to fool people even as they believe her is a clarion call for wariness. We live in a fallen world where people choose to live out lies, facades like Mika's. They may say one thing to us, but mean something else entirely. Jesus told his disciples, when sending them out on mission, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16). That message applies to us, too. We must be wary and suspicious, while retaining a level of innocence and naivety. This is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith, one that is behavioral not doctrinal. But only in following Jesus' advice will we be able to see clearly through the fog of hypocrisy and deceit that would blind us.

Finally, Mika's comments to Andre remind us that people are quick to believe what they hear. When we tell someone something they tend to naturally accept it. That places a burden on us to be honest. If we lie, even a white lie told in jest, may be unwittingly taken in faith and cause someone to falter. We must be careful in our words lest we wound a fellow follower of Jesus (1 Cor. 10:23-24), or, worse perhaps, push away someone who does not yet claim Christ.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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