Cause and Effect in Merci pour le chocolat

The impact of Hitchcock’s work on that of Claude Chabrol is well known and when Merci pour le chocolat was released in 2000, some critics commented on what they saw as Hitchcock’s influence, referring to Notorious (1946) and Suspicion (1941). [1] However, Merci pour le chocolat does more than just re-use a Hitchcockian device; it exhibits a network of inheritances, including references to genre conventions, allusions to influences and acknowledgements of inspirations. Charlotte Armstrong’s biographer suggests that Hitchcock’s films may have inspired Armstrong when she was writing the source novel The Chocolate Cobweb (1948), in California in 1946 and 1947. When Armstrong moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, her novels changed from mystery stories to suspense stories, more like the Hitchcock thriller or the Hollywood film noir, where we know the identity of the killer in advance. Furthermore, in 1946, while Armstrong was writing The Chocolate Cobweb in Los Angeles Notorious was released; in the same year, Warner brothers were adapting her first suspense novel, The Unsuspected, into a film starring Claude Rains. Hitchcock never made a feature film from Armstrong’s novels, but he met her in the summer of 1950 to discuss working together and she later wrote four scripts for Hitchcock’s television shows. [2] Therefore, what looks like Chabrol acknowledging Hitchcock’s influence is more complex. Keeping in mind these connections between novel and film, genre and director, this essay discusses the relationship between themes, motifs and style in Merci pour le chocolat. It argues that Chabrol absorbs genre conventions and acknowledges influences, while using his established rhetorical strategies to create a distinctive tone of unease, and it considers the benefits of his combination of crime genre conventions with a style that introduces ambiguities and ellipses.

The Chabrol thriller draws on many conventions of the crime genre. As Guy Austin notes, the crime thriller “allows him to engage the spectator via the plot, and then explore the complexities of character, morality, society and politics within an accessible and satisfying framework” (1999: 4). This is true of much crime fiction, whether novels, films or television programmes, but, as in several of his previous films, Chabrol brings to the adaptation of The Chocolate Cobweb an element of what Austin calls “class war” (1999: 83) and Lee Horsley categorises as “socio-political critique”. [3] Merci pour le chocolat does this in two ways: first, it allows perception of and agreement with aspects of the killer’s point of view; second, it uses the setting to reveal the range of possible causes of the killer’s actions and the social conditions in which these causes developed.

Michael Walker (1992: 9), in his survey of film noir, describes two broad categories of crime fiction. Referring to John Cawelti’s distinction in Adventure, Mystery and Romance (1976), Walker distinguishes between the classic version of crime fiction, which features a “refined, ratiocinative detective in a frequently upper middle-class milieu” (1992: 9), and the hard-boiled hero tradition, in which the hero is independent of corrupt institutions and societies. Walker also outlines an alternative tradition (1992: 15), which focuses on unstable or disturbed characters: “In these films, the psychologically disturbed character is more often female than male, and there is an explicit concern, usually channelled through a psychoanalyst or psychiatrist, with the aetiology of the disturbance” (1992: 15). This alternative tradition includes three of the novelists whom Chabrol adapted: Charlotte Armstrong, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. All three writers, and the Chabrol films adapted from their work, explore the “aetiology of the disturbance”, that is to say, they inquire into the causes of the murderer’s behaviour. Merci pour le chocolat belongs to this alternative tradition of crime fiction that offers a thematic exploration of the killer’s alienation from their society.

The tradition that focuses on the killer, with stories told from the killer’s point of view, whether in first person or third-person narration, includes such novelists as James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. One example of a novel exploring what Thompson, in The Killer Inside Me (1952), describes as “the sickness”, is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), with its focus on the psychology of the murderer, Raskolnikov. Hitchcock and Fritz Lang add to this tradition, for example, in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948) and Scarlet Street (1945). However, Chabrol’s combination of a revelation of milieu with insights into the killer’s psychology most resembles the method of Ruth Rendell, whose A Judgement in Stone (1977) and The Bridesmaid (1989) he adapted. Like Rendell, Chabrol’s focus is on a murderer’s obsessions and psychological breakdown, and, like Rendell, he combines this with an exploration of social conditions; for example, both Chabrol and Rendell compare the murderers with other people, depicting their characters’ intertwining lives to highlight the unfairness of societies divided by class and inherited wealth. [4] In words that evoke Chabrol’s methods, Horsley praises the way in which Rendell complicates the killer’s behaviour: “her aim seems always to work towards a more complex understanding of the nature of disorder itself – of its dangers and its attractions” (2005: 62); “coercive class structures, social pressures, prejudice, and deprivation are themselves her subject” (2005: 62). In her work on British female crime writers, Susan Rowland contrasts the golden age/classic detective story with Rendell’s novels, arguing that the latter expose the pernicious pressure of traditional class structures and associate crime with social oppression:

Rendell has a more materialist and ultimately more utopian conception of crime. Rejecting a theology of individual sin versus the social body, Rendell exhibits a liberal condemnation of oppression arising from the conflicting structuring of identities within coercive hierarchies of power, sexuality and gender. (Rowland 2001: 48)

Beginning with the novels and films that depict social conditions breeding gangsters, criticisms of the societies that produce criminals can be found often in crime fiction that incorporates the killer’s point of view. [5] As Horsley discusses, the tradition of crime writing that explores the psychology of the criminal concentrates on “transgression and pathology” (2005: 112-157). Describing a convention of crime fiction used by Chabrol, Horsley notes how crime writers like Thompson and Highsmith “make us complicit, forcing us to attend to their protagonists’ cynically detached commentaries on the societies through which they move, and perhaps bringing us to see our own suppressed violence reflected in their states of mind” (Horsley 2005: 129). Several Chabrol films represent the killer’s point of view as a way of exploring the moral corruption of modern society. Merci pour le chocolat depicts an environment, yet it is not one in which poverty and inequality causes crime (as in the gangster genre), but one familiar from melodrama in which luxury and wealth breed decadence and corruption: the conservative haute bourgeoisie of Switzerland. [6]

The opening scene of Merci pour le chocolat establishes questions about the characters, using a wedding to highlight the importance of formality and etiquette in this setting. The first shot, a close-up of chocolate factory owner Mika/Marie-Claire Muller (Isabelle Huppert), typifies the film’s strategy for showing her face while revealing little about what is going on in her mind. [7] The registrar’s emphasis on her re-marriage to concert pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) creates uncertainty about why they are getting re-married, while the subsequent conversation between the registrar and Mika about how well the former knows the latter initiates the film’s thematic focus on parentage, for the registrar uses with Mika the same idiomatic phrase that Dr Pollet (Bridgitte Catillon) later uses to assert her parentage to her daughter Jeanne (Anna Mougalis): “I know you. I made you”.

Mika’s verbal and physical responses suggest that she perceives the registrar as inclining towards an informality that Mika cannot reciprocate. When the registrar touches Mika’s shoulder, Mika withdraws from this contact. Furthermore, Chabrol has cast as the registrar an actress (Véronique Alain) with almost the same colour and style of hair as Mika. When they face each other, they create a doubling effect, something that is relevant to the accidental exchange of two infants at birth before being re-united with their parents. In addition, Mika’s colleague Patou’s (Michel Robin) comments about how Mika “hates losing” indicate that long acquaintance with her has led him to intuit a further personality trait of hers, one which relates to the unfolding mystery.

This opening scene inducts us into a milieu that includes two groups within the bourgeoisie: artists and intellectuals stand apart from Lausanne’s business class. With André and Mika as their figureheads, world-famous pianist and factory owner, the two groups appear unified through marriage, but the other members of these groups do not mix at the wedding. (The film later shows them in different situations: the business men and women are at the chocolate factory board meeting; the four musicians arrive for dinner at the Polonskis.)

Jacque Dutronc’s performance as André gives his character a placid demeanour, which, in the opening scene, contrasts with the businessmen’s controlled presentation of themselves. Yet when André says of his father-in-law “Poor man, he was obsessed by his chocolates”, he fails to recognise parallels between his own obsession with his music and his dead father-in-law’s obsession with his chocolate business. The film will suggest that both obsessions have prevented people from realising the truth about the murderer. Furthermore, in depicting a milieu where manners matter, the film makes it difficult to determine what motivates André to bring his encounter with Patou to an end; André is polite, but he may offer to get another drink for Patou to escape the social situation.

As in Hitchcock’s films, the party setting enables a contrast between what people say in public and in private. After André leaves to get Patou’s refill, the latter states: “I admire him as a pianist, but, as a man, he bothers me”. The film reveals how pressurised this social situation is because of the differences between the two groups present. Cutting between them, Chabrol generates tension by comparing who says what to whom. The close framing of three gossips at the wedding reception, with Patou leaning towards a man’s ear while an adjacent woman maintains a fixed smile and outward gaze, is almost a caricature. Despite their ostensible politeness, the framing, costume, cutting and dialogue hint at their hostility. This deceptive mannerliness suits the milieu and occasion, but it also allows Mika’s impenetrability to pass unnoticed.

The wedding scene reveals that the central character has different names, Mika Muller and Marie-Claire Polonski, which, as is the case for many married women, the re-marriage re-adjusts once more, hinting that Mika’s identity is ill defined. The scene establishes questions about how second wife Lisbeth died and why André and first wife Mika are getting re-married; it also suggests that Mika’s capacity for organisation is germane. Chabrol emphasises this through the use of close-ups of Mika watching, with the voice of André’s son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), audible. The combination of the close-ups of Mika and Guillaume’s off-screen voice suggests that Mika is over-hearing, over-seeing and organising. As Guillaume says of his mother’s exhibition: “It’s thanks to Mika. She organised everything”. The close-ups of Mika indicate her sense of control and her isolation from her guests. With repeated viewings, André’s innocent remark “Are you two plotting again?” becomes ironic.

The opening scene ends by using the ‘one single photo’ requested by the registrar to link Mika and André’s remarriage and the restaurant scene, when the film introduces the other characters: Jeanne, her mother, Dr Pollet, Jeanne’s boyfriend, Axel (Mathieu Simonet), and his mother (Isolde Barth). There is a certain boldness in Chabrol’s decision to initiate a plot about a young woman becoming involved in a mystery with a photograph. It is a declaration that the film is aware of its relation to its medium and to its genre; just as declarative is the plot device that re-unites Pollets and Polonskis. When Axel’s mother searches the newspaper for a suitable film to see that evening, she discovers, the headline ‘Piano et Chocolat’, the ‘one single photo’ and the story of André Polonski’s wedding to Marie-Claire Muller. When Dr Pollet explains the baby-swap incident, her daughter, Jeanne, pronounces that the story resembles that of a film about two babies swapped at birth, La Vie et un long fleuve tranquille (1988, Etienne Chatiliez).

The function of Chabrol’s detailed depiction of this social setting is to provide a context that camouflages the murderer’s behaviour by rendering her oddness unexceptional. By placing Mika in an upper middle-class society where control over one’s appearance and behaviour is expected, Chabrol ensures that her compulsion to control passes unnoticed. Within familial and social settings, the murderer can hide her true feelings. The gallery opening is the third of the three public events with which the film establishes its milieu. At the gallery, the camera pans from one guest to another and incorporates an incisive illustration of this milieu. One guest states, “This Jewish gold business surfaces every year”; another (Patou) mentions: “A prosecutor, homosexual and from Geneva”. The film gives no other context for these comments, but their inclusion indicates this society’s conservatism, one that is given a national dimension because of the decision to set the film in Switzerland. This suits the film’s depiction of a privileged social class far better than Armstrong’s California. Indeed, class and setting are irrelevant in the novel, whereas the film’s portrait of Lausanne uses the cliché of a neutral and conservative country. As Jeanne jokes to Axel when they arrive at the restaurant, “Afraid of thieves in Switzerland?” The irony is that this milieu hides a murderer, yet no-one suspects. The country, Chabrol implies, is like the isolated house of gothic melodrama and classic detective fiction, hiding a secret and tempting the investigating heroine to enter and solve the mystery.

Jeanne’s entrance into the Polonski house is a good example of Chabrol’s synthesis of performances, staging and cinematography to hint at what is going on in the murderer’s mind. There are several important elements in this scene. It is the first time that the film shows Mika, André and Guillaume at home, and the scene reveals the dynamics of their home life, introducing what will become the film’s central location. Chabrol weaves together Mika’s delivery of the drugged hot chocolate, André’s negotiation with his son over their shared use of the living room and Jeanne’s interruption, her arrival causing a reaction in Mika. The scene presents Jeanne’s disruption of their domestic routine as a threat to Mika’s control. Her sense of peril in this scene exemplifies the film’s larger rhetorical strategy of concentrating on Mika’s thought processes, with the actress and filmmaker conveying the disquiet experienced by the murderer. This scene is exemplary for the way that it draws attention to Mika’s perception of Jeanne as a threat, yet also typical of the means by which Chabrol emphasises ambiguity. Despite focussing our attention on Mika, the scene does not offer confident insights into her motives.

Therefore, performances and staging in this scene do the work of the heroine’s and the murderer’s internal monologues, replacing the novelist’s explanations of their thoughts. Thus, for example, the sequence begins with the camera approaching the house as if it represents the point of view of a hesitant stranger, watching from outside. The forward-tracking movement does not represent a character’s point of view, yet a hint of menace is attached to it, in part because of the accompanying music. Inside the house, André plays the piano, Guillaume plays a handheld computer game and Mika ascends the stairs with a metal flask, which contains the drugged hot chocolate that she will later spill on purpose, although the film does not reveal it on a first viewing. The noise of the computer game irritates André, but made placid either from his addiction to sleeping pills or by his musical focus he negotiates with Guillaume to get him to stop, just before the doorbell interrupts his playing.

Both André and Guillaume remain seated when they hear the doorbell. Chabrol then cuts to Mika poised on the stairs. The framings of Mika in this shot and the following shot have been aptly chosen. When Mika asks about the doorbell, she is halfway down the stairs, halfway in her journey back from delivering the drugged hot chocolate to Guillaume’s bedroom. Vertical bars proliferate in this image of her: banisters in the right corner, window bars on the left and security bars outside the window. The next shot begins on Guillaume and tilts up as he rises to answer the door. This image again presents Mika on the stairs, behind the curved banisters and within the door frame, looking out of the window, the curtain pulled just enough for her to look outwards.

The shot of Mika on the stairs holds her at a distance twice (through door frame and banisters). Placement and posture emphasise curiosity; her position on the curved staircase enables her to observe Jeanne. Therefore, it is logical that the film cuts to a point-of-view shot of Jeanne standing outside, embodying Mika’s perspective on the stairs. The film shows Jeanne through the window bars, as Mika sees her, with vertical bars visible; and, as in the shot of Mika on the stairs, the film presents an entrapment image. Yet though the film shows what Mika sees, it does not reveal her thoughts. Her position on the stairs indicates her attentive presence, but framing and setting keep her at a distance.

Moments like this exemplify Chabrol’s characteristic refusal to clarify why the film shows some things and not others; this refusal creates an uneasy ambiguity because the film does not orientate us towards the characters, their feelings or their motivations. For example, the measured movement of the shot that first shows André and Guillaume at home heightens the contrast between background and foreground, and thus the incongruousness of Guillaume’s absorption with his yellow plastic computer game and André’s playing of his expensive piano, a contrast also achieved by the combination on the soundtrack of Guillaume’s electronic bleeping and André’s assured playing.

Huppert’s performance and Chabrol’s filming of it suggest Mika’s possible thoughts. She fingers her necklace as she talks, the fixed smile on her face implying her effort to control her expression. In the group shot of the four characters, for example, André stands on the right foreground, his back visible, his head turned towards Jeanne. On the left is Jeanne, facing André. In between them stand Guillaume and Mika in an alliance of exclusion. Mika almost bites her lip as she stares into space, her hands behind her back. Listening to her husband and Jeanne, she appears self-absorbed, projecting a feeling of contained tension. Caught between André’s fond memories and Jeanne’s eager excitement, Mika’s face suggest depths of resentment and frustration: she has re-married André, but a new competitor has turned up, an unexpected threat to the stability she has enforced. Furthermore, she appears to be scratching her back involuntarily, something she does again when André and Jeanne go to the piano and when she shows Jeanne to see Lisbeth’s self-portraits in Guillaume’s bedroom.

Huppert’s gestures and expressions suggest an unspecified tension in her character, whereas Pauly makes Guillaume’s emotions legible, his reaction understandable; he looks annoyed, but the vacant look in Mika’s eyes and her scratching suggest she has lost control. Moreover, although Jeanne is the interloper, Mika’s visual difference is notable within this grouping; she is the shortest and she is the one person without dark brown hair or dark clothes. To re-gain her composure, Mika must re-enact the role of charming hostess and offer Jeanne a drink. As at the wedding, routine hospitality facilitates her performance and helps her mask her feelings. Yet Huppert’s gestures express her character’s tussle to gain control; for example, as Mika turns and walks between Guillaume and Jeanne, she touches them to initiate their movement into the living room, the precise contact that of a seasoned conductor of social events. But André’s spontaneity interrupts Mika’s assertion of control and halts Jeanne’s progress.

When Guillaume wanders off to get the drink, to the left of the other three, Mika stands between Jeanne and André with one hand behind her back, again scratching away at something, an uncontrollable symptom. When Jeanne tells André that she is a pianist, competing in Budapest, the camera stops moving: Guillaume lingers at the door; Mika stands between Jeanne and André. Then Mika starts to move away from them. With her hand behind her back, she sits down on the sofa by the brown throw. The camera abandons Jeanne and André, instead following Mika as she goes to the sofa. The film does not convey what Mika is thinking about or whether she knows what she is thinking, but it does suggest a high degree of unease.

As an expressive symptom of her discomfort, Mika’s scratching of her back may appear too obvious, yet its precise meaning remains vague and its awkwardness is consistent with Mika’s odd removal of herself from the social situation when she sits on the sofa. She starts to do this as soon as she hears that Jeanne is a musician, the camera following her silent movement away from the pianists. The slow and controlled camera movements heighten the tension; the film’s concentration on Mika is as careful as the character’s self-presentation. Chabrol flaunts his contrived choreography, exemplifying the sense one has that the filmmaker is displaying his authority.

When Mika sits on the sofa, she takes up a part of the brown throw and begins knitting. Chabrol then cuts to a shot of Jeanne and André facing each other in profile. As with the shot of Mika and the registrar, this framing suggests symmetry and doubling. When Jeanne tells André that she has chosen Liszt’s Funérailles for the Budapest competition, the film cuts back to Mika knitting on the sofa. The film returns to André and Jeanne as he leads her to the piano: ‘It’s a good choice, but it’s full of traps. You mustn’t only play it like a funeral march’. As he finishes his line, the camera pans left, away from the pianists, towards Mika on the sofa, directing our attention to the person excluded. This shot shows her from behind, sitting and in the middle of the brown, cobweb-shaped throw.

When Guillaume returns, he asks Mika if she wants something to drink. She declines then touches her mouth. Huppert’s gesture does not suggest that Mika is absent-minded, but nor is it a tell-tale revelation; it suggests thought, but neither performance nor camera indicate what she is thinking. After Mika takes Jeanne upstairs, André sits down where Guillaume was sitting when the scene began, explains that “she just reminded me of those days”, then picks up Guillaume’s computer game and starts playing it as he says: “How did she fall asleep at the wheel?”.

Previous Chabrol critics comment on his the director’s use of symmetry; Wood and Walker, for example, argue of Chabrol’s films that,

they show a continual tendency towards the enclosed, insulated kuntswerk, the art-object. The tendency is evident in Chabrol’s formal preoccupations, his obsession with a symmetry that is usually inseparable from the thematic and expressive content of his films but could, one feels, at any moment harden into symmetry-for-symmetry’s sake. (Wood and Walker 1970: 58)

The symmetry in the use of the computer game to open and close the scene offers itself as a pattern to be interpreted. That symmetry contributes to the motif of doubling that was initiated by the shot of Mika and the registrar, continued by the profile shot of Jeanne and André and which helps create the theme of interchangeability inherent in a story of two babies swapped at birth.

Recognising how these symmetrical patterns are linked to the theme of exchange brings pleasure. Here I have in mind something like Douglas Pye’s response to the opening cross-cutting of Strangers on a Train: “This is a highly self-conscious deployment of film techniques that wants to declare itself as such, while carrying the spectator along in pleasurable anticipation of narrative developments” (Pye 2007: 41). Chabrol’s decision to end the scene with André playing Guillaume’s game is an authoritative flaunting of symmetry; it offers a sense of satisfaction at the formal neatness of the scene. Yet also important is the way this symmetry is tied to the revelation of André’s character. The action indicates the father’s bond with his son and his relaxed frame of mind, so different to his wife’s personality.

The film’s use of the cobweb-shaped brown throw is another example of its flaunting the prominence of pattern. The film introduces it during Jeanne’s first visit to the Polonski household. Six shots in that scene show the brown throw on the sofa. The first one is the pan that follows Mika as she leaves Jeanne and André when the former tells the latter she is a pianist. Mika sits on the sofa and starts knitting a part of the throw. Then, when Jeanne and André walk towards the piano, the film shows Mika sitting in the middle of it. The brown throw next appears at the end of Jeanne’s second visit to the house, as she drinks hot chocolate with Mika and André after piano practice. On this occasion, Jeanne sits in the middle of it. The final scene begins with Guillaume and Jeanne sitting on or near the brown throw as they drink or, in Guillaume’s case, don’t drink the poisoned coffee. It is prominent during and after Mika’s confession, and, the film ends with a long take focussed on Mika as she cries and stares into space, while André plays Funérailles. She leans back on the brown throw, her head at its centre, before curling up in a foetal position beside it. The camera cranes above her, while the music comes to its climax. Then the film fades to black after Funérailles finishes.

Unlike the film, Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb refers only once to a cobweb, an imaginary one used as a metaphor for the murderer’s plotting (Armstrong 1967: 133). The heroine perceives the plot as a chocolate cobweb when she realises the truth about the drugged hot chocolate and the murderer’s pattern of behaviour; it is the character’s metaphor as much as the novelist’s. In addition, although the novel mentions the murderer’s knitting four times, in each case describing her actions as an expression of her control or loss of it, the film contains no equivalent of Armstrong’s adverbial revelation “her small hands looped the yarn furiously” (1967: 31). And Armstrong describes the killer as knitting ‘something blue’ (1967: 29): her novel does not feature a brown throw being knitted in the shape of a cobweb nor does it connect the murderer’s knitting to the hot chocolate. [8] Chabrol literalizes the heroine’s perception of the murderer’s pattern of behaviour with her actual knitting of the cobweb-shaped brown throw.

Both novel and film are about a compulsion to repeat patterns of behaviour and both novel and film foreground their repetitions. In the novel, the heroine imagines the murderer’s organisation of events as the repetitive movements of weaving a web. In the film, André becomes suspicious because he sees a pattern in Mika’s behaviour: her washing of the coffee cups awakens his memory of the sequence of actions that led to his previous wife’s death. Chabrol finds additional significance in repetitive behaviour by changing the husband from a painter to a pianist. The literalness of the transposition of the cobweb metaphor from novel to film matches the forceful solemnity of the music, with the repeated playing of Liszt’s Funérailles replacing the novel’s explanations of the murderer’s thoughts. The foregrounded visual motif and the Liszt music match the conventions of the genres on which Chabrol draws, the gothic melodrama and the expressionistic crime film.

The ‘one single photo’ declares Chabrol’s film’s relation to its medium and its genre; the physical embodiment of the novel’s chocolate cobweb is a similar demonstration of creative authority, of the kind one finds in Hitchcock. The brown throw is a type of internal doubling, in that it functions as an analogy for the structure of the film, with its developed pattern of references to drinks, milk and childhood. The film features such reflections on its inheritances elsewhere; apart from evoking the poisoned drinks in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), Chabrol’s film also alludes to the last scene of Rope. After Rupert (James Stewart) has confronted Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), the latter resumes his place at the piano and plays a short phrase from Poulenc’s Perpetual Motion Number 1 while the three of them listen to the sirens of the arriving police cars. At the end of Merci pour le chocolat, after André has confronted Mika, André returns to the piano and plays Funérailles one last time. The situation is the same: a central room, a phone call, the piano being played and the characters waiting for the police.

Chabrol also includes acknowledgements of his indebtedness to Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir by having the murderer give Guillaume, one of her possible victims, two films to watch during his recuperation, necessary because of her deliberate burning of his ankle. The films are Lang’s Secret beyond the Door (1948) and Renoir’s adaptation of Simenon’s La Nuit de Carrefour (1932). [9]   Both films offer clues about the plot of Merci pour le chocolat. In the Lang film, as in the Chabrol, a young woman enters a big house that holds a secret. She faces a number of challenges, including an attempt on her life, as she works to expose the secret. In Renoir’s film, there is also an isolated house with a secret, while sleeping drugs figure prominently in the story. Inspector Maigret (Pierre Renoir) discovers that Else Anderson (Winna Winifried) was secretly giving Veronal to her husband, Carl Anderson (Georges Koudria), to put him to sleep so that she could meet her lovers, first Oscar (Dignimont), then Michonnet (Jean Gehret). As in the Chabrol film, the female villain in La Nuit de Carrefour is tranquillising her victims. But Else is herself poisoned when Michonnet tries to kill her by placing two bottles of poisoned beer in the kitchen. She drinks some beer and collapses, just after Maigret discovers the Veronal tablets hidden behind a painting. [10] It is unsurprising that within a film that acknowledges the stimulus of earlier films so openly a foregrounded symbol finds a place.

In this sense, the brown throw works as a type of distancing effect; that is, it works in the same stylised and unequivocal manner as some of Douglas Sirk’s symbols, as described by Paul Willemen (1971: 65), for example, the teapot or the father’s trophy in All that Heaven Allows (1955). [11] The brown throw functions as a distancing effect because of its obviousness as a metaphor for entrapment. The film transposes Armstrong’s title and the heroine’s perception of the murderer’s plot so literally that, once the brown throw catches one’s attention, it functions as a piece of overdetermined symbolism. [12]

Assertion, foregrounding, symmetry, geometry, diagrammatic and schematic: these are all words used by previous writers when responding to the assertive rhetoric they discover in Chabrol’s films. [13] What many writers respond to is the distinctive way that Chabrol combines photographic and narrative plausibility (within the crime genre) with heightened artifice and formalism. Chabrol said:

I try to avoid – except when it’s the purpose of the film – making the camera subjective in relation to the characters in the film. That is, directly subjective – to make the audience identify with one of the characters by the effect of the camera. Except when I want to play a trick – to make them identify with a character and then make them realise what horrible scoundrels they are. That amuses me … But otherwise, I think that the role of the camera is to give its own point of view on what is happening. Without going so far as to use the ‘pretty’ vehicle of distanciation, which is heavy, let’s say that a light step backward in relation to the story allows you to avoid a deterioration into bad taste, into grandiose affects. (Yakir 1979: 9)

The foregrounding of the brown throw is an example of this ‘light step backward’ from the characters and their story, a distancing effect that helps produce an uncomfortable viewing experience. [14] As Deborah Thomas notes of Chabrol’s adaptation of Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, La Cérémonie (1995), “we are consistently made to feel distanced from both the killers and their victims, yet remain intensely – and emotionally – involved in the film” (2005: 170). Chabrol’s stylistic assertions add to spectatorial unease, but they also help defer conclusions about motives.

As other writers have observed, Chabrol’s combination of rhetorical assertiveness and causal ambiguity is a key part of his films’ socio-political critique. [15] Merci pour le chocolat focuses on the killer, but it does not explain the killer’s actions. Instead, it creates ambiguity about her motives. As Tony McKibbin notes: “If we must offer sympathy it should lie not so much in reasons provided but in reason’s very absence: that there is something tragically inexplicable in the character’s being” (2005: 21). The novel explains the killer’s thoughts about her past actions; it tells us what is going on in the heroine’s and the killer’s minds; the film does neither. In the novel, a family friend, Fanny Austin, tells the heroine that the previous wife, Belle, died when she collapsed in the garage near the exhaust pipe, under the influence of ‘sleeping dope’, with the car engine running and unable to unlock the door (Armstrong 1967: 50). The murderer later recalls, in an internal monologue, that she carried her victim unconscious into the garage. The film eliminates Armstrong’s complicated plotting, both for the murder of the previous wife and the attempted murder of the young heroine, which involves a gas pipe in the garage and a different poisoned drink. [16] Chabrol simplifies both to an induced sleep while driving.

The novel has a complicated plot and a simple explanation of causality; the film reverses these. [17] Chabrol converts the novel’s intricate but linear plot into a complex psychological portrait by increasing the density and integration of the visual depiction of people and spaces. Armstrong’s murderer has one motive: jealous revenge. Merci pour le chocolat hints at many possible motives, but all remain ambiguous; she might be seeking revenge, righting a perceived wrong, but her final explanation to her husband is accusatory. The film avoids one explanation and multiplies potential causes of the murderer’s actions. The refusal to reveal one explanation of the murderer’s actions enables exploration without confirmation of the conditions in which the murderer’s motives developed. For example, Armstrong explains that the murderer visits the heroine’s mother to ascertain the truth about the baby swap story, clarifying the murderer’s plans and strengthening the plot’s linearity. Chabrol, however, refrains from providing a straightforward motivation for the visit. The film’s mystery is that of the murderer’s intentions, rather than the suspense of whether the heroine will save (and then marry) the victim’s son. The film does not divulge the killer’s plans; the nearest Chabrol gets is his repeated use of close-ups of Isabelle Huppert, which approximate Armstrong’s description of the murderer’s blank stare. For instance, there is a moment alone with Mika, when she is in Guillaume’s bedroom. In many films this would be an opportunity for revelation, but not here. Mika walks towards the photograph of Lisbeth and touches it. Her actions are odd, but they communicate nothing specific.

Another example of the film’s achievement of an ambiguous causality is the difference between the novel and film versions of the scene in which the heroine learns about the drugged hot chocolate. In the novel, the heroine’s boyfriend warns her that the results of his experiment have revealed that the “sleeping dope” was a “pretty stiff solution”, that “it is poison” and that “it was damn dangerous” (Armstrong 1967: 40). Therefore, the heroine knows from the start that the dosage of the ‘sleeping dope’ in the stepson’s hot chocolate is lethal. She learns that the stepmother was trying to kill the stepson and warns him: ‘“I think she wanted you to die”’ (Armstrong 1967: 78). In the film, the boyfriend tells the heroine that it is Benzodiazepine, known as Rohypnol, but he has not “checked the concentration” because he set fire to the sweater and to die from it, “You’d need one hell of a dose”. The film’s heroine becomes curious about the Rohypnol, but does not suspect attempted murder.

By leaving the strength of the solution unknown, the film suppresses proof that Mika intended to kill Guillaume on the night Jeanne turns up. André also admits his addiction to the sedative, which can be used to treat panic attacks and anxiety. The ambiguity about the dosage leaves open the possibility that the stepmother was sedating Guillaume, rather than murdering him, pacifying husband and stepson, keeping them docile as a way of controlling them. By withholding an explanation for the Rohypnol in Guillaume’s hot chocolate, Chabrol makes the presence of the drug more mysterious. Mika’s intentions are unconfirmed and the relation between narrative cause and effect is weakened. Similarly, Mika’s flashback to the night on which she poisoned Lisbeth conceals rather than reveals her intentions. The flashback shows the murderer’s actions, thus adding to Guillaume’s explanation to Jeanne of the circumstances of his mother’s death, but it does not clarify motives. Chabrol preserves Armstrong’s explanation of the murderer replacing the second wife (the flashback shows Mika going to stand in Lisbeth’s place at André’s piano), but, while the novelist authorises it as a definitive motive, the filmmaker positions it as one of several possible causes.

One significant difference between novel and film is Chabrol’s enlargement of the novel’s device of poisoned hot chocolate into an elaborate pattern of references to drinks, milk and chocolate. The strategic expansion of the novel’s single reference to hot chocolate draws on the commonplace and mythological associations of milk as a basic human food, given by mothers to children. However, like Hitchcock, Chabrol inverts these associations so that Michael Walker’s comments about Hitchcock’s aversion to milk apply: it is “another manifestation of his rejection of the maternal” (2005: 195). [18] The intertwining motifs and references replace Armstrong’s explanations of the murderer’s motive and increases the causal ambiguity, diminishing the relevance of rational explanation of Mika’s actions. Connecting these references to parenthood, the film questions the extent to which the function and conduct of parents can cause certain behaviour in children, whether that is murder or musicianship.

References to milk recur throughout the film, but Chabrol particularly connects them to the revelation of Jeanne’s anonymous donor father and Mika’s adoption, two additions by the filmmakers, which function, like the Pollet and Polonski baby swap, to emphasise the random privileges of birth. In Dr Pollet’s office, Mika refuses milk in her tea, while Dr Pollet takes it. When Pollet tells Jeanne that her father was sterile and that she is the daughter of a sperm donor, Pollet almost lets the milk boil over because, while making breakfast for her daughter, she is interrupted by a phone call from Mika. And while Dr Pollet gives milk to her daughter, Mika gives drugged milk in the form of hot chocolate to her stepson. Her maternal role is compromised. Also noticeable is the fact that after Mika reveals her adoption, the lunch scene fades out on a shot of the half-eaten chocolate charlotte. [19] Other references include Guillaume watching a documentary about yoghurt and the discussion about a milk pipeline at the chocolate factory board meeting.

Several benefits accrue from the filmmakers’ invention of the chocolate factory; for example, the film links the sleeping drug with the chocolate factory by dissolving from Jeanne looking up ‘Benzodiazepine’ in her mother’s office to the exterior of the Muller chocolate factory and then to the interior of the boardroom. Patou criticises Mika’s rejection of everything related to childhood and her use of “the public relations and sponsoring budget” to subsidise twelve anti-pain centres. Mika responds: “Keeping up appearances is all that counts”, her comments providing clues about her obsessions. The filmmakers’ invention of the chocolate factory also allows the film to show Mika as a businesswoman who owns the company, but appears not to be involved in its day-to-day running.

To extend the themes of parenting and causation onto the wider milieu and its inhabitants the film depicts its setting with care and connects the murderer to her social environment. It is difficult to separate Mika from her surroundings; the film places her as a product of the Lausanne haute bourgeoisie and what McKibbin describes as “years of buttoned-up repression” (2005: 23). Accompanying the revelation of her adoption is the revelation of a society that has not noticed her oddness and her compulsion to control, including her docile husband. In this way, Merci pour le chocolat explores what Walker describes as “the aetiology of the disturbance” (1992: 15) and, as Horsley notes, provides “insights into the ordinary society that their killers mimic” (2005: 128). By contextualising Mika, Chabrol’s film raises the issue of whether an individualistic psychological explanation of the murderer’s mind, such as the one in the novel, suffices. Mika may have killed Lisbeth because of jealous revenge, but to Armstrong’s explanation Chabrol adds Mika’s obsession with control, which, in this environment, the film implies, has fermented into a lethal compulsion. As she admits to Dr Pollet, “It’s terrible, I’m always meddling”. The film uses Mika’s adoption to imply that manipulation in this society is easy once one learns its rules and plays its games. As she tells André at the end, “Instead of loving, I say ‘I love you’ and people believe me. I have real power in my mind. I calculate everything”. This is much like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who thinks “If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those things with every gesture” (Highsmith 1999: 165).

Like Ripley, Mika organises everything. André appears to let Mika run his life, buy his clothes, medicine, food, give him and his second wife a home after their divorce. Partly through Dutronc’s performance, the film hints that André’s passivity, his drugged dependence on Mika, may have encouraged the over-development of her controlling tendencies. The film emphasises that Mika is a woman who is always performing, in public places naturally, but also in the private space of her home, with husband and stepson. She is always thinking about the next thing, whether planning a meal or attempting murder. When she sees that Guillaume hasn’t drunk his coffee, after he rejected her hot chocolate, she wonders aloud about his motives. She may suspect he has suspicions, but it is just as likely that her reaction is a reflex monitoring of everyone around her. Rather than being a suspense thriller about a woman seeking revenge, the film studies a social and psychological type, someone compelled to organise, intervene and meddle. Mika appears to embrace the responsibility of looking after the successful artist, but she takes it further so that the film exposes how the energy that she puts into maintaining this control covers a feeling of frustrated emptiness.

One of the ways that the film suggests that Mika’s alienation is related to her more general feelings about being an outsider is by contrasting her with the other people in her life. As Wood and Walker write:

There are also films in which envy, and the resulting desire to destroy what can’t be possessed (one of the most frequently recurring emotions in Chabrol’s work) is directed specifically against a relationship from which the envier feels excluded, a reaction explainable less as sexual jealousy than as a frustrated desire to be accepted into a family group. (Wood and Walker 1970: 17)

This describes the murderer in Merci pour le chocolat, who envies those around her. Paradoxically, though, Chabrol’s film generates some sympathy for the murderer by revealing the fragility of her social mask. Her sharp refusal of informality with the registrar at her wedding gives way to a sense of exclusion to which the film draws attention when Jeanne arrives at her house. At the end, as her mask falls away, the collapse of her polished exterior reveals Mika’s vulnerability and isolation, while her criticisms of André prompt agreement. The film creates this sense of her isolation through the contrast it makes between Mika and others.

Mika is an independent woman, who has her own business, but who was adopted. She has inherited the family business from her adoptive parents. Her adoption by a wealthy couple and her inheritance of a chocolate factory may have led her to feel that she has not achieved anything herself. She is not an active professional, like Jeanne’s mother, Dr Pollet, whom the film shows working at home on a Sunday. The film contrasts Mika’s work to Dr Pollet’s by cutting from the chocolate factory to Dr Pollet’s forensic science laboratory (another invention by the filmmakers), and, in the scene of Mika’s visit to the laboratory, Chabrol uses framing, costume and setting to differentiate the inheritor of a business and the working professional.

Nor is Mika creative. In the novel, the dead wife was a model for the famous artist, but Chabrol increases the murderer’s alienation by changing the murdered wife, Lisbeth, into a successful photographer, an artist in her own right. The exhibition is of the dead wife’s photographs, not the older man’s paintings. Mika’s husband is a pianist, his previous wife was a successful photographer, and Jeanne is a talented young pianist; only her stepson, Guillaume, is as displaced as she is. His father’s talent exacerbates teenage hesitations about what to do with his life; Jeanne’s ambition and talent as a pianist further throw into relief the contrast between him and his father. Sensitive to imperfection and feeling excluded, Mika sympathises with Guillaume. Though she appears to send Guillaume to his death with Jeanne, she expresses concern for her stepson, based on their exclusion from the realm of creativity. In the novel, no such bond exists.

Mika’s sympathy for Guillaume suggests that she envies André’s obsession with his music. That is why she interrupts André’s “You don’t realise how much you’ve helped me. Thanks to you I”, with a dismissive “I know, I help everyone”. By making it possible to empathise with the murderer, Chabrol introduces a political dimension, showing that the frustrations of being an auxiliary to a husband are part of Mika’s make-up, hence her resentment of Jeanne and her fellow feeling for Guillaume. [20] At the end of the film, Mika admits, “I know what I am. I’m nothing. …. Guillaume’s like me. We’re not like you. My mother never thought I was a genius. I’m just a hanger-on”. Unlike those around her, Mika is unable to create; her talent is for making hot chocolate. In Rope, Brandon tells Philip: “You know I’d never do anything unless I did it perfectly. I’ve always wished for more artistic talent. Well, murder can be an art too. The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create”. As Susan Smith (2000) argues, Brandon may have been jealous of the murder victim, David Kentley, a Harvard undergraduate, talented sportsman and heterosexual, engaged to Brandon’s final girlfriend, but, as he admits, Brandon has no “power to create”, no “artistic talent”, unlike Philip, who plays the piano throughout Rope, so that, as with André and Jeanne’s repeated playing of Liszt’s Funérailles, it functions as a repetitive reminder of that talent.

The result of these contrasts is that, to a limited degree, Merci pour le chocolat enables us to perceive the murderer as a victim. With her motives ambiguous, it is easier to empathise with the film’s murderer than it is with the novel’s murderer and harder to demonise her. Chabrol treats the murderous butcher in Le Boucher as a victim so as to confront questions about where the line can be drawn between the savage and the civilised. With Merci pour le chocolat, Chabrol suggests that we can understand Mika’s actions as a form of rebellion against a civilisation she perceives as a thin façade, thus, her final accusatory comment to André: “Some people fool themselves”.

Chabrol asks us to consider whether Mika is unconsciously rejecting, in a self-destructive fury, her buttoned-up milieu. She confesses with such ease, so unlike the murderer in the novel, where the killer denies attempted murder to the police and tries to blame her stepson, the confession needing to be tricked out of her by him provoking her to reveal herself in anger (Armstrong 1967: 187). In contrast, Mika admits murder as soon as her husband confronts her. Chabrol eliminates the police questioning and the romance between the two young people. By preserving the intimacy of the couple in their living room, Chabrol makes the ending all about Mika and the possible explanations for her actions. The final scene conveys the sense that the killer has no explanation that she can give; it was a compulsion like her others.

Mika takes her place in a line of charming nihilistic psychopaths used by their creators to question the status quo depicted in their fictions. She resembles Rope’s Brandon, Highsmith’s Tom Ripley and Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, all killers who offer convincing presentations of murder as the temptation of an ordinary nihilism. [21] “The world is a foul sty”, says Uncle Charlie to his niece in the Till Two Bar; “if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine”. His sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), offers his childhood accident as an explanation for Charles’s waywardness, and, by implication, his adult crimes. However, Shadow of a Doubt allows us to infer other kinds of explanations for Charles’s murders, notably the stifling small-town values of Santa Rosa. This is a common-enough trope of the crime genre’s depiction of psychopathy, which Hitchcock and Chabrol employ, and, when discussing this trope, Wood and Walker propose that Chabrolian psychopaths are disruptive “id figures”. [22] Mika is not quite an id figure; nevertheless Merci pour le chocolat suggests that she sees bourgeois society as a façade hiding animal savagery. With a sense of despair at the moral emptiness of civilisation and a feeling that nothing matters, she has drifted into a psychopathic nihilism that gives her the capacity to kill.

In this way, Merci pour le chocolat is about causation: it questions how we should explain the causes of Mika’s actions and it indicates the difficulty of agreeing on those causes. Chabrol explores a complex range of explanations, linking this exploration to parenthood through the creation of patterns of motifs related to drinks, milk and chocolate. These patterns emphasise the unknowable and contingent in human action. They highlight, for example, the randomness of privilege as a birthright, the film establishing that Pollet could be Polonski, rich could be poor, babies could have been swapped at birth, could have been adopted (as Mika was) or could have been the daughter of an anonymous sperm donor (as Jeanne was). The film suggests that where we are placed in society and who we are has little to do with any intrinsic essence and everything to do with how we are formed by our societies and families. The destabilising of narrative causality is connected to the overdetermined metaphor of the cobweb and the assured allusions to the inheritances and influences of the gothic melodrama and the expressionistic crime film. Using a rhetoric of assertiveness, Merci pour le chocolat foregrounds its stylistic strategies in a manner that increases spectatorial unease, making the normality depicted feel unstable and tense. That stylistic assertiveness is an essential component of Chabrol’s achievement for it heightens awareness of the patterning involved in constructing this fictional world, exposing the construction of all worldviews to give the killer’s polite nihilism some purchase.



I am grateful to John Hill and Steven Marchant for conversation about this essay and to Mandy Merck for helpful editorial advice.



Charlotte Armstrong, The Chocolate Cobweb. (New York: Berkley Medallion Books, 1967; first published by Coward-McCann, Inc. 1948).

Jan Burke, ‘The Last Word: The Mean Streets of the Suburbs, the Kindness of Strangers – A Tribute to Charlotte Armstrong’ Clues: A Journal of Detection 25:4, summer, 2007, pp. 65-69.

Ian Cameron, ‘The Darwinian World of Claude Chabrol’ Movie 10, June, 1963, pp. 4-9.

Rick Cypert, The Virtue of Suspense: The Life and Works of Charlotte Armstrong. (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2008).

Derry, Charles (1988) The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Charles Derry, ‘Claude Chabrol’ International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume2, Fourth Edition. London: St. James Press, 2001), pp. 169-174.

Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Editorial: The Cinema of Irony’ Monogram 5, 1975, pp. 1-2.

Jean-André Fieschi, ‘Wait and See: Chabrol Films Not Yet Shown in Britain’ Movie 10, June, 1963, pp. 10-13.

Gabor Gergely, ‘Pruning Roses, Producing Space: Representing the Social Bond in the Melodramas of Claude Chabrol’ Studies in French Cinema 12:1, January, 2012, pp. 47-57.

Patricia Highsmith, fThe Talented Mr Ripley. (London: Vintage Books, 1999; first published 1955).

Lee Horsley, Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Florence Jacobowitz, ‘La Cérémonie: “The Last Marxist Film” by Claude Chabrol’ CineAction! 39, December, 1995, pp. 36-43.

Mark LeFanu, ‘Chabrol, Truffaut in the 1970s: Elegant Games to What End?’ Monogram 5, 1975, pp. 3-7.

Tony McKibbin, ‘The Chaos of the Organs: Isabelle Huppert’s Reverse Pygmalionism’ Studies in French Cinema 5:1, February, 2005, pp. 17-26.

R. Barton Palmer, Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. (New York: Twayne, 1994).

Robert B. Pippin, Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

Douglas Pye, ‘Movies and Tone’ in Pye and Gibbs (eds) Close-Up 02. (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), pp. 5-18.

Ian Rankin, ‘Ten of the greatest literary crime novels’ Mail Online, 27 March, 2010. On-line: (Accessed: 28 May 2013).

Susan Rowland, From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1983), pp. 81-95.

Mark Shivas, ‘In Paris: Landru, The TrialMovie 7, February, 1963, pp. 7-10.

Susan Smith, Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour and Tone. (London: BFI, 2000).

Deborah Thomas, ‘“Knowing one’s place”: Frame-Breaking, Embarrassment and Irony in La Cérémonie (Claude Chabrol, 1995)’ in Gibbs, John and Pye, Douglas (eds) Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 167-178.

Michael Walker, ‘Claude Chabrol: Into the ‘Seventies’ Movie 20, spring, 1975, pp. 44-64.

Michael Walker, ‘Film Noir: An Introduction’ in Cameron, Ian (ed.) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista, 1992), pp. 8-38.

Walker, Michael (2005) Hitchcock’s Motifs. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.

Robert Warshow, ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’ in The Immediate Experience Harvard: Harvard University Press, 97-103; first published in Partisan Review February 1948, 2001.

Paul Willemen, ‘Distanciation and Douglas Sirk’ Screen 12:2, summer, 1971, pp. 63-67.

Robin Wood, ‘Chabrol and Truffaut’ Movie 17, winter, 1969, pp.16-24.

Robin Wood  and Michael Walker, (eds) Claude Chabrol. (London: Studio Vista, 1970).

Robin Wood, ‘Rancho Notorious: A Noir Western in Colour’ CineAction! 13/14 summer, 1988, pp. 83-93.

Dan Yakir, ‘The Magical Mystery World of Claude Chabrol: An Interview’ Film Quarterly spring, 1979, pp. 2-14.



[1] The film’s credits are: ‘Adaptation and dialogue by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol/After the novel by Charlotte Armstrong The Chocolate Cobweb’. I have not yet investigated in detail the collaboration between Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol. Therefore, I acknowledge that some of the things I claim as Chabrol’s decisions may have been Eliacheff’s decisions or joint decisions. I hope to learn more in the future about their work together. For the time being, I note as relevant Eliacheff’s career as a psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist, author of several books on the subject.
[2] For further details of Armstrong’s connections with Hitchcock and the influence of Hollywood films on her suspense novels, see Cypert (2008: 78). Of the film version of Armstrong’s The Unsuspected (1947, Michael Curtiz), Walker notes: ‘The film is suspenseful not only in its own right, but in terms of how it develops the generic features. One feels strongly that these are generic features with which Charlotte Armstrong, the novelist, and Ranald MacDougall, the scriptwriter, would have been perfectly familiar’ (1992: 22).
[3] Horsley, in a chapter entitled ‘Crime Fiction as Socio-Political Critique’ (2005: 158-195), lists ‘issues that have been prominent in crime writing from the late 1920s on: class prejudice and exploitation, commercial greed and the plundering of the environment, consumerism and the politics of economic self-interest’ (2005: 159). Austin discusses the ways in which Chabrol, in film after film, criticised the bourgeoisie; Chabrol’s ‘sly critique of the bourgeoisie’ (1999: 43) and his ‘questioning of bourgeois values’ (1999: 79) form a central part of Austin’s positive assessment of Chabrol’s films. See also Derry, who writes:  ‘[w]hile murder is always a violent act for Chabrol, it is rarely an act associated with thugs, but with the bourgeoisie’ (1988: 84-5), and Jacobowitz, who speaks of ‘a social world which unfairly suffocates’ in Chabrol’s films (1995: 43). Gergely (2012) writes about class in Chabrol’s films, concentrating on the representation of gardens in the bourgeois environment. Gergely argues that Chabrol’s melodramas expose ‘the unbearable hypocrisy of a bourgeois existence and an irresistible desire to rebel against it or the unbearable prospect of the veil slipping off the carefully maintained bourgeois façade, and the lives of the bourgeois being exposed for the lies they are’ (2012: 49).
[4] As well as the Chabrol-adapted novels, The Bridesmaid and A Judgement of Stone, see, for example, Rendell’s Lake of Darkness (1980), Live Flesh (1986) and Thirteen Steps Down (2004). Fellow novelist Ian Rankin says of Rendell’s work within this tradition: ‘Rendell’s real interest is in human motive and the aspects of society that make criminal behaviour possible. Crime writers have always explored not only our deepest natures but the nature of society itself’ (Rankin 2010).
[5] Robert Warshow defined the gangster as a tragic hero who ‘speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and demands of modern life, which rejects “Americanism” itself’ (2001: 100). Thomas Schatz also notes that the gangster genre, focused on the criminal and the killer, often criticises the societies that force the poor to turn to crime (1983: 89).
[6] Previous critics have noted Chabrol’s depiction of social settings. Wood, for example, comments on the importance of place in Chabrol’s films (1969: 22). Wood and Walker (1970: 15) note that Chabrol’s focus on milieu is one of the ways that he complicates causality. Comparing Truffaut and Chabrol films, Wood writes: ‘one could argue that a Marxist viewpoint underlies the Chabrol’. (1969: 17). Walker identifies three recurrent settings for Chabrol’s films: the village community, the city and ‘the rich, isolated bourgeois family’ (1975: 45). Of La Femme Infidèle, Walker argues that there is ‘a persistent questioning of the assumptions and presumptions (in short, the ideology) of the bourgeoisie’ (1975: 46). Austin notes Le Boucher’s explicit contrast between Hélène’s and the village’s ‘tranquil order’ and Popaul’s ‘repressed violence’ on which this order is based (1999: 64).
[7] Isabelle Huppert makes a major contribution to Merci pour le chocolat’s delineation of a murderer’s psychology. This essay acknowledges, but does not deal centrally with her performance. Austin notes that the political dimension of Chabrol’s films is often connected to his use of female characters as ‘socially and historically defined individuals’; ‘There is thus a degree of Marxism as well as mystery in their depiction. Women are often trapped, frustrated or disadvantaged, and this is often a matter of social class’ (1999: 126). Huppert helps present the murderer as understandable. Derry also comments on Huppert and Chabrol’s previous collaborations: ‘The success of Une affaire des femmes, Madame Bovary, and La Cérémonie, as well as the earlier Violette Nozière (all four starring Isabelle Huppert), may indicate that Chabrol’s films – cold as an inherent result of the director’s personality and formal interests – may absolutely require an extraordinary, expressive female presence in order to contribute a human, empathic dimension’ (Derry 2001: 173). In Merci pour le chocolat, Huppert contributes this ‘human, empathic dimension’. See McKibbin (2005) for an excellent discussion of Huppert’s performance.
[8] The four occasions are: ‘She said, picking up her knitting basket, smiling, “Elsie made you some chocolate, Thone, for later”’ (Armstrong 1967: 26); ‘Mrs Garrison, still in her gray, was knitting on something blue. She was at home in a corner of the sofa, cozy and passive’ (Armstrong 1967: 29); ‘Her hands had let the knitting fall. It lay tangled. “I don’t understand. …”’ (Armstrong 1967: 30); ‘“But how … ?” Her small hands looped the yarn furiously’ (Armstrong 1967: 31).
[9] Discussing Que la bête meure (Chabrol, 1969), Wood and Walker write: ‘Here Chabrol consciously aligns himself with the “fatalistic cinema” of Lang. Time and again in Lang’s films one becomes aware of an ineluctable force of destiny against which the characters seem powerless. In Que la bête meure, however, the Lang parallel is more precise. A monstrous “accident of fate” which shatters the life of the hero and turns him into a relentless avenger is a recurrent Lang theme’ (Wood and Walker 1970: 124). Chabrol’s films, like other films, plays and novels that end bitterly or pessimistically, raise a question about whether Robin Wood’s critical judgement of Fritz Lang’s films applies, that is, ‘if the protagonist is trapped, the spectator is set free’ (Wood 1988: 91).
[10] Writers and dramatists have often used poison as a domestic, feminine crime. Cypert (2008: 69) suggests that Armstrong was inspired by the Madeleine Smith case, but it is difficult to be conclusive with such a famous case. For instance, on the first page of Rendell’s first novel, From Doon with Death (1964), Rendell notes that one of the characters has on his bookshelf a copy of The Trials of Madeleine Smith.
[11] Willemen writes: ‘the most striking feature of these symbols being their total unequivocalness’ (1971: 65). LeFanu (1975: 5) also uses the term ‘overdetermined’. Elsaesser writes of ‘Chabrol’s cinema, where the plot foregrounds itself into almost operatic theatricality’ (1975: 1).
[12] This is something that other writers have noted as prevalent in Chabrol’s style; for example, Austin writes of La Femme infidéle, ‘[b]eneath the glossy image of Hélène and Charles’s comfortable life … there lurks a feeling of unease’ (1999: 52). In the same film, Austin notes that ‘[t]here are other scenes which suggest a latent violence or an emptiness beneath the glossy surface’ (1999: 54).
[13] As Derry notes, ‘Chabrol’s films tend to be thrillers with an incredibly self-conscious, self-assured style’ (2001: 172). Austin suggests three possible ways of categorising Chabrol’s assertive style: as art cinema (1999: 167), as expressionism (1999: 159) and as melodrama (1999: 72). Chabrol himself said, ‘I adore symmetry’ (Yakir 1979: 4; also cited in Austin 1999: 63). However, Ian Cameron argues that Chabrol’s foregrounded formal patterning can sometimes feel overdone. He notes ‘the strained symmetry of his first two films. This symmetry was most troublesome in the ending of Les Cousins, where the desire to make a formal point overcame Chabrol’s better judgement’ (Cameron 1963: 7). Wood writes: ‘Geometry – particularly the geometry of triangles – has always fascinated Chabrol; there is sometimes the problem of whether the characters determine the pattern or the pattern the characters, of whether the geometry grows naturally out of the human interchange or is externally imposed’ (Wood 1969: 20). These aesthetic issues relating to formal patterning and Chabrol’s style are discussed in Monogram and Movie in 1975. In Monogram, Elsaesser writes of Le Boucher and the combination of ‘its strongly linear, suspense-orientated plot’ and ‘so many carefully composed symmetrical patterns overlaying and deflecting the momentum of the story-line that one is tempted to talk about a counter-structure of visual and verbal motifs superimposing itself on the movements of the intrigue’ (1975:1). Michael Walker’s Movie article responds to Mark LeFanu’s article in Monogram. LeFanu argues that Le Boucher refers not to the psychology of the characters, but to the film’s ‘repeated insistence on its own fictions’. He writes: ‘There is everywhere an overt visual symbolism, puzzling and ironical, as it seems to dare us by its very obviousness to offer an “interpretation”’ (LeFanu 1975: 4). In response to LeFanu, Walker argues that ‘one can speak, without violating the fictional framework, of characters having histories, where the film sets these up, as is the case with Le Boucher’ (1975:49). I agree with LeFanu about the overtness of the symbolism in Chabrol’s work, but not about it being an arrangement of pure form. We notice the ‘extreme formality and symmetry’ (LeFanu 1975: 5) of Chabrol’s symbols, but this does not mean that they ‘they are signs which exist in a quasi-autonomous role, forms without meaning in a circular discourse’ (1975: 5).
[14] As Mark Shivas notes: ‘Chabrol’s colour and décor are very important to this dual aspect of Landru. They give a certain “distancing” effect to the story, which allows us to look at Landru as an ordinary man, but at the same time to look at him as a myth in action’ (1963: 7). Fieschi also notes: ‘The fact that he rejects audience-identification, which is at the basis of traditional entertainment (or only uses it initially in order to reject it more effectively later on) makes his films distasteful from one point of view, but reinforces the critical viewpoint’ (Fieschi 1963: 11). Deborah Thomas argues that La Cérémonie discourages identification. She describes her experience of watching La Cérémonie as ‘a sort of clinically detached curiosity rather than anything approaching liking or identification’ (2005: 169).
[15] In 1969, Wood writes: ‘The opacity of the motivation constitutes a valid artistic statement: human beings are driven by motives inaccessible to the conscious mind which it would be arrogant to pretend to understand or explain, and which can only be guessed at in retrospect. The film’s limited but impressive tragic force arises largely from our sense of this’ (1969: 21). Wood and Walker state: ‘The inscrutability of human motivation has always been a leading Chabrol theme’ (1970: 76). At the time of the release of La Cérémonie, in 1995, Chabrol says: ‘my great pleasure is to reveal opacity’ (Guérin and Jousse 1995: 30; quoted in Austin 1999: 5). Thomas says of the maid, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), in La Cérémonie: ‘she herself remains opaque to the Lelièvre family, her face like a mask as she performs her role’ (2005: 169). Austin notes, ‘Human motivations remain obscure rather than transparent. Actions (particularly crimes) and their consequences are shown in uncompromising – and often blackly comic – detail, but no comforting explanations are given’ (Austin 1999: 4-5). Austin notes how little we learn about ‘the enigmatic and ultimately disembodied female protagonists of films such as Le Boucher, Les Innocents aux mains sales, Violette Nozière, Betty and La Cérémonie’ (1999: 5).
[16] Warner Brothers bought the rights to Armstrong’s first suspense novel, The Unsuspected (1946) and, after the success of novel and film versions of The Unsuspected, they expressed interest in Armstrong’s next novel, The Chocolate Cobweb. Rick Cypert quotes letters from 1947 from Warner Brothers and MGM, held in the Armstrong papers: ‘Warner brothers rejected the work as “too complicated and too implausible at several points to make good material for a picture”. Likewise, MGM did not select it as a contender for a script award contest but qualified: “However, this does not necessarily mean that MGM has rejected this novel as picture material, and our own Story Department requests that you keep them informed of any competitive interest”’ (Cypert 2008: 68-9). Arguably, Warners were correct to identify the novel’s explanation of the murders as ‘too complicated and too implausible’ for a film.
[17] The effect I have in mind is described by R. Barton Palmer when discussing film noir: ‘The most striking alteration of Hollywood dramaturgy is that noir characters usually act from inchoate, unknown or pathological motives. Such characters prevent the narrative from being organized according to Aristotelian principles of cause and effect’ (Palmer 1994: 19; quoted in Pippin 2012: 111, n.25).
[18] Walker (2005: 195) refers to the sinister associations Hitchcock gives to milk in several films: Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945) and Psycho (1960).
[19] One could also argue that the fade out on the chocolate charlotte, which the Polonskis’ housekeeper serves for lunch, is a typically Chabrolian food-related homage to the novelist and her novel.
[20] In Rendell’s From Doon With Death, the killer is a woman, Fabia Quadrant, who, Rendell implies, has been forced by a patriarchal and homophobic society to take on the role of middle-class housewife, despite declaring her love for another woman (whom she eventually kills) and despite being very intelligent and literary – she is a frustrated writer. Inspector Wexford understands and is sympathetic to the murderer and contemptuous of her rich husband’s arrogance and his affairs with other women. The theme of repressed sexuality is close to Rope, Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Chabrol’s Le Boucher.
[21] Austin discusses how this is a recurring theme in Chabrol’s films. He relates this to the influence of screenwriter Paul Gégauff on Chabrol and the dramatization of this influence in many Chabrol’s films as an opposition between Paul and Charles; within Austin’s argument, Gégauff represents nihilism as fascism. Even a late Chabrol film, La Fille coupée en deux (2007), continues this tradition with the two male characters named Paul and Charles. Austin writes of Les Cousins (1959): ‘The rationale for the film was therefore, among other things, to show the dangerous appeal of Fascism’ (1999: 20). Of Juste avant la nuit (1971), Austin writes that it ‘present[s] a Chabrolian figure struggling with his Gégauffian fantasies’ (Austin 1999: 75). I agree with Austin’s conclusions and would add to his argument the quotation by a party guest in La Cérémonie from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: ‘There are aspects of good people I find loathsome, least of all the evil within them’.
[22] See Wood and Walker (1970: 133). They argue that in Chabrol’s work of the late 1960s, ‘there is a growing illumination of the forces behind the characters’ disturbed state’ (1970: 134). They also compare Chabrol’s killers with Hitchcock’s killers,  arguing that killers like Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or Bruno in Strangers on a Train emerge into a civilised world which has tried to repress such figures: ‘Hitchcock’s murderers frequently represent the terrible and excessive fulfilment of the protagonist’s desires, as if they were devils who had been conjured up’ (Wood and Walker 1970: 54). As a result, they argue, ‘Beneath the apparent “happy endings” of the majority of Hitchcock’s films lurks an intensely pessimistic view of life: an artificial, limiting and precarious surface order; beneath it, terrible suppressed forces which may erupt at any minute and, when they do, are almost impossible to combat or control’ (Wood and Walker 1970: 14). In both the Hitchcock and Chabrol examples, the id figures ‘violate the surface order of the lives of the more normal characters’ (Wood and Walker 1970: 15).

About the Author

Jacob Leigh

About the Author

Jacob Leigh

Dr Jacob Leigh is a Lecturer in Film Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of The Cinema of Eric Rohmer and The Cinema of Ken Loach. He is currently researching a book on Claude Chabrol's late films.View all posts by Jacob Leigh →