Merci Pour Le Chocolat (2000)
Also titled Nightcap in English translation
Written by Caroline Eliacheff and Claude Chabrol, adapted from ‘The Chocolate Cobweb’ by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronic and Anna Mouglalis
When I read and reviewed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb close to a year ago I had nothing but praise for the book, calling it one of the best reprints to have appeared in Penzler Publishers’ American Mystery Classics range to date. Little wonder then that when I learned that there was a French film adaptation, I had to seek out a copy.
Nightcap is faithful to much of the original novel’s situation, making only a few minor changes which I will discuss in a moment. The premise of the story is that a young woman learns that at birth there was an incident at the hospital in which she was mixed up with another child. The parents insisted on switching the children and nothing more was said but when she learns that the identity of the other father, she is fascinated as they are one of the leading figures in her field of study. Determined to meet them, she forces an introduction at his home, meeting his wife and son who all learn the story.
During that meeting she sees that his wife takes an opportunity to purposefully spill a container of hot chocolate that she had just prepared for her stepson. Our heroine is curious why someone would do that and, suspecting foul play, she decides to return to the house in the hope of stopping what she believes will be an attempt at murder.
As I noted in my review, I think that this is a wonderful concept for a story that blends suspense with a howcatchem-type inverted mystery. What I love most though is that this is a concept that sees a heroine knowingly step into an incredibly dangerous situation to protect a relative stranger – in this case, a young man who is quite cold and bitter toward her. Being aware of the dangers to come makes that decision all the more impressive and made me like the young woman – named Jeanne in the film – all the more.
Most of the differences in the initial setup of the story are quite minor and reflect the relocation of the story from America to Switzerland. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to alter the subject Jeanne is studying from art to music – a decision that makes a lot of sense in the context of the shift of medium. Art would naturally work in a visual medium but the use of music allows for the engagement of an additional sense while retaining the opportunity for a mentor-mentee relationship to develop with the man who could have been her father.
The film does a good job of introducing us to the various characters and explaining the rather complex scenario in its opening few minutes. This is the most convoluted part of the story and I had worried that it might seem all the more artificial when seen played out on screen. To my pleasure however I found that the decision is made to play Jeanne’s choice to meet the family she might have had out of curiosity rather than a sincere belief that she was really his daughter. Similarly, I appreciate that the film chooses to have André be excited about the prospect of a mentee rather than taking the idea too seriously.
One of the biggest differences between the book and the film experience is that while we are privy to the thoughts of Ione, the stepmother, we are kept more distant from Marie-Claire. We observe her actions but do not learn why she is doing them. This is not just because we have lost the internal monologue – the film never fully explains the story even in retrospect, trusting the viewer to piece the material together.
It is, for me, a rather unfortunate decision as I think it prevents the film from building a sense of suspense as effectively as the novel. I had loved the way that the reader was given knowledge of Ione’s intentions in the book, raising our anticipation to see whether her plans would come off. Without knowledge of that inner voice we are kept from knowing exactly what she has in mind or why, which not only prevents the viewer from anticipating developments but it also means the viewer will likely have questions at the end of the movie, particularly in relation to her motives.
That is a shame because in other respects I quite enjoyed Isabelle Huppert’s performance. It is a little flatter and colder than I had imagined Ione in the book but it fits this setting quite well, making an interesting contrast with Jacques Dutronc’s warmer and more expressive André. Both give strong performances and I appreciated that each underplay their parts, seeming very convincing alongside each other.
The film’s production values, like the performances, are a little understated and few would suggest that this offers much visual appeal. The camerawork and editing is quite simple, favoring long takes observing actors rather than quick cuts – a choice that gives the performances more room to breathe. There are a few moments of sloppiness however, such as a boom mike dropping into shot during a scene between Huppert and Brigitte Catillon. Given this took place in long shot and goes nowhere near the actors, I have no idea why it wasn’t spotted in the edit and a tighter crop or alternate take used.
The biggest changes made between the book and the film all take place in the denouement and naturally, I don’t want to discuss them in any detail for fear of spoiling anyone. The alteration is significant because it changes the context of the ending and means that the movie ends on a somewhat different note, arguably touching on some slightly different ideas. The change itself didn’t bother me but the choice to have everything play out off screen and relayed to us in dialogue did feel a little disappointing.
This is a shame because I think the movie otherwise does a pretty solid job of adapting the source material to the screen. It is easy to imagine how this movie could have indulged itself too much in its premise, losing sight of the characters’ humanity. Instead I was pleased that the movie grounds itself in its characters, focusing on their emotional states as they respond to one another.
The lack of a strong ending, both in terms of the tension created and also the sense of resolution, keeps this from being a really great adaptation of the source material. Still, I liked the casting and performances a lot and I commend it for managing to sell the baby swap scenario so well (it actually adds a little to the novel, helping make sense of that plot strand a little better).
Nightcap does not match its source material for tension, particularly in its conclusion, but in most other respects it is a very competent adaptation. While I strongly suggest starting with the novel, this is certainly worth a look.