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Merci pour le chocolat

The Gaze of Perversity


Isabelle Huppert has worked with numerous interesting directors of various generations and many nationalities. She has acted for Otto Preminger and Joseph Losey, Jean-Luc Godard and Maurice Pialat, Michael Cimino and Hal Hartley, Hong Sang-soo and Rithy Panh, as well as Werner Schroeter, Marco Bellocchio, Raul Ruiz and Michael Haneke. Young French filmmakers she has worked with in recent years include: Christophe Honore, Francois Ozon and Olivier Assayas. Few actresses have engaged with a wider range of auteurs; yet the filmmaker she has acted for most is a director whose reputation has always been respectable but hardly monumental. The late Claude Chabrol is probably seen as one of the more minor figures in the French New wave, and yet Huppert, who is perhaps  the most significant actress of her generation, and whose repute comes not least from the great directors she has worked with, appeared in more than half a dozen Chabrol films. What is it that might have drawn Huppert to this director who would make at least a film a year, beyond a shared interest in the prolific? “There’s a certain Chabrolian type that I can assume easily”, Huppert says in the DVD extras, as she talks about her character in the film being an extension of the character she first played for Chabrol back in the late seventies, in the based-on-a-true-story, Violette Noziere. There she was an eighteen year old who murders her parents; in Merci pour le chocolat she plays someone who may have murdered her husband’s second wife years earlier (Huppert’s Mika Muller is his first and third), and looks like she wants to murder her husband’s son from that second marriage, as well as a young woman who could possibly have been his daughter: the now grown-up son and the young woman were confused at birth. That this young woman, Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), is a talented pianist, and the husband, Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), a great one, makes it possible that Jeanne rather than Guillaume is his offspring.

Now one reason why Huppert can assume the Chabrolian type easily is that she has always been a great actress of overstatement within sub-text: an oxymoronic approach to characterisation ostensibly, but one that contains the melodrama in action but the obscure in motive. Whether it happens to be putting glass in the coat pocket of one of her students in The Piano Teacher, poisoning the haute bourgeois family in Chabrol’s La Ceremonie, or making her partners or husbands jealous in numerous films –  Coup de torchon, Loulou, La separation or Gabrielle – the action is rarely categorically justified by the psychological underpinning. When John Yorke in a Guardian article about screenwriting says, “The Russian actor, director and theoretician Konstantin Stanislavski first articulated the idea that characters are motivated by desire. To find Nemo, to put out the towering inferno, to clear their name, to catch a thief”, these are characters where the internal wish and the external action are matched. But the Chabrolian type Huppert invokes and that she fits neatly into is not so readily driven by conventional desire, and here a comment by Jacques Lacan proves pertinent not necessarily for its universal application, but for its specific usefulness in relation to Chabrol’s films. “Thus desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the phenomenon of their splitting”. (Ecrits) If Huppert’s Mika happened to be seeking the family fortune by killing off the other members, this would allow for motivation to meet external action, but it is Mika who is the heir to a fortune: she is the heiress of a chocolate factory empire; there is no monetary gain to be had by murderous deeds. It seems more that she lacks the very place to put her desires, and so it must manifest itself as a lack, and it is this lack which she tries to reveal to her husband at the film’s conclusion: “I know what I am. I’m nothing.” At the end of the film Mika reveals less her guilt than her collapse. The film’s credits appear over a two minute shot of Mika distraught, her face no longer scheming and controlling, but manifesting this absence as her husband plays the piano off-screen. Here is a man who expresses himself in music, and whose talent perhaps protects him from the ravages of threatened non-being. When moments earlier Mika says to Andre, “I never understand when you speak”, it is an awareness that he speaks from a world of desire where she speaks from a world that is devoid of it. If she is subsequently and constantly in danger of possessing no firm identity at all, then were does she reside? In scheming social gesture, we might propose, in subtly perverting the norms. “I have real power in my mind. I calculate everything”, she says, before exiting the frame and leaving us with a momentary close-up of the now finished woollen cobweb throw we have seen her knitting earlier in the film.

If Andre calculates too, he does so within the context of his craft, evident when Jeanne says earlier in the film as she plays the piano under Andre’s tutelage that playing isn’t natural for her, and he says “it isn’t for anyone. It’s all concentration and hard work.” Mika is all concentration and hard work also, but she is one of Chabrol’s characters of perversity, taking into account the distinction philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Deleuzians have made between the sadist and the pervert, between subversion and perversion. Differentiating between the two, Jeremie Valentin sees that Sade’s “anti-tyrannical attitude is analogous to Deleuze and Guattari’s struggle against the fascist state in AntiOedipus…it is the anarchic vision that explodes here, in all its splendour. It is the struggle against tyranny in all its forms: dictatorship, fascism, the law of the priest and the psychoanalyst, judgement, morality. In contradistinction, the masochist posture seems perverse in the apparent immobility that it suggests.” (‘Deleuze’s Political Posture’) Deleuze, meanwhile, says, “there is a kind of mysticism in perversion: the greater the renunciation, the greater and more secure the gains; we might compare it to a ‘black’ theology where pleasure ceases to motivate the will and is abjured, disavowed, ‘renounced’, the better to be recovered as a reward or consequence, and as a law”. (Masochism)

Unpicking these statements and making them play out in the context of Merci pour la chocolat and other Chabrol films, we can understand something of Chabrol’s radical conservatism without needing to reject the stance. If Jean-Luc Godard was a subversive as he raged against bourgeois society, Chabrol was ‘perversive’, searching within his characters, and the bourgeois milieux he so carefully deployed, the playing out of power and quiet violence. In Le boucher, an ex-army man upsets gentle, small town life with his murderous actions, but most of the time he is a caring, sensitive addition to the village: the town butcher. In La femme infidele, the husband kills the wife’s lover in an act that perversely draws the couple together at the film’s conclusion as the husband is led away by the police after committing the crime. In L’enfer, a husband becomes obsessed by his wife’s potential infidelities, as if taking out the stress he feels in trying to make a go of a hotel business venture on his spouse. What often happens in Chabrol’s films is that any external action is contained by a greater sense of perverse motivation. When he proposed in an article in Cahiers du cinema in the late fifties, ‘Grand Subjects, Small Subjects’, that a film shouldn’t be judged by the ambition of its subject matter, it would be consistent with the director’s approach (and Huppert’s) to event as somehow insignificant next to what hides within the event, what perverts rather than subverts it. In each instance, in Le boucher, La femme infidele, L’enfer and Merci pour le chocolat the violence is subdued, the power play subtle, with the characters acting as if in semi-sublimation.

It isn’t the murders that are ever that important in Chabrol’s films, nor the plot revelations, nor the capture. What matters much more is how a person manifests their perversity. As we’ve noted, if Merci pour le chocolat were about Mika’s superficial ambitions, and that she wanted to inherit a fortune, we could have explicit murder, explicit awareness of the motivation for her actions, and an explicit sequence of the police trying to capture her. Instead we have no superficial motivation all the better to reveal the perversity of her needs and desires, and consequently little need for the force of the law to turn up and arrest her. Where Hitchcock would often require motivation enough to generate villainy in films like Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and Rear Window that would allow for the set-piece linked to fear and excitement, Chabrol’s thrillers are close to emotional flat-liners, films that rarely generate a set-piece because such a scene would be superfluous. When we have the carousel sequence in Strangers on a Train, the Mt Rushmore scene in North by Northwest, Jefferies’ lover going into the murderer’s apartment whilst he’s out in Rear Window, we can see these are scenes that Hitchcock moves towards. When asked about the notion of the chase, Hitchcock replied, “well, for one thing, the chase seems to me the final expression of the motion picture medium. Where but on the screen can automobiles be shown careening around corners at each other?” (‘Core of the Movie: The Chase’)

However though of course Chabrol co-wrote a book with Eric Rohmer on the maestro, his attitude towards cars has been quite different, as if he wanted to extract two things from the vehicle that have little to do with their similarity to the ontology of the moving image, even though the car and motion picture are historically close inventions, both products of the end of the 19th century that became important artefacts of the twentieth. Now numerous filmmakers have assumed that the fast pace of the car and the fast pace of cinema make them closely linked in the sense of movement also, and this is what Hitchcock is alluding to when he talks of the final expression of the medium. But Chabrol’s cinema echoes Alain Badiou’s remarks about the car in certain auteurs’ work, and connects to Chabrol’s ongoing interest in the accoutrements of bourgeois living: a car functions not as a high speed piece of machinery, first of all, but as a status symbol. Its speed is secondary to its symbolic function, and this is where Badiou’s comments about the vehicle are useful. Talking of the car sequence as central to the “overwhelming stereotype of contemporary imagery”, he adds that nevertheless there are certain filmmakers where “the operation consists of making an action scene into the place of speech, of changing what is a sign of speed into a sign of slowness, of constraining what is an exteriority of movement to become a form of reflexive or dialogic interiority.” (Infinite Thought)

How does this work in a Chabrol film? What Chabrol does is make the car not an object of speed but of slowness perceptually. Instead of the car becoming a centrepiece of the set-piece, it becomes a material object of contemplation. So while the scene where Guillaume and Jeanne drive in the night near the film’s conclusion (as we wonder whether they will have an accident after Mika has drugged their coffee) is quite perfunctory, lacking the excitement we can find in similar sequences near the end of Suspicion or near the beginning of North by Northwest, earlier car sequences in the film possess a meditative comprehension of the upper bourgeois lives Chabrol is showing us. We needn’t exaggerate this: it is just part of a broader scrutiny that Chabrol applies to material wealth. The three cars here (Jeanne’s mother’s, Mika’s and Jeanne’s boyfriend’s) all look like they have just come out of the showroom, and the boyfriend’s sporty hatchback is especially striking. But then there are also a couple of shots of Mika’s house that indicate great wealth, and the interiors of both Jeanne’s mother’s home and Mika’s are enviably comfortable in the former instance and stunning in the latter.

Chabrol’s purpose generally is not to heighten suspense but to shed light on material prosperity, and sheds light on it within the context of a plot that he accepts but doesn’t indulge. As he says, “I hate plots, [but] we must give them a plot. Anyway, I think the plot doesn’t matter”. (Film Forum). Chabrol does however say in the same interview, “for me the audience is always ready to be bored. They sit there, poor people. So the lesson is, when the audience doesn’t want to think, they just want to be interested. They deserve that, we should give them that too. If they want to think, okay, but if not, they deserve to be entertained.” Yet this need to entertain, this desire to keep the audience occupied nevertheless doesn’t completely negate Chabrol’s equal need to be preoccupied, to show an endless fascination for bourgeois mores and rituals. Whether it is the breakfast Jeanne shares with her mother, the tea Jeanne’s mother has with Mika, the lunch Jeanne’s mother and a friend are impatient to order as they wait for Jeanne and her boyfriend, or the meal that Mika, Andre, Guillame and Jeanne share near the end of the film, as well as the coffees and hot chocolates, the film is suffused with ritualised bourgeois behaviour that seems more pronounced than plot exploration and explanation. Chabrol might talk of the importance of the story, but we can watch his films without feeling that it is significant; that instead there is some other aspect he is searching out which seems much more linked to material critique and psychological nuance, and it is as though the two come together in his pleasure in showing the lifestyle, but wondering whether within it there is very much life.

It is here we see Huppert’s remarks, Lacan’s idea of lack, and Chabrol’s materialist critique, through a variation of Badiou’s notion of slowness over speed, coming together. Badiou may be talking specifically about the car, just as Lacan was talking unspecifically about the human condition, but if we expand upon Badious’s remarks a little, and if we close down Lacan’s to their relevance to Chabrol, then we might understand better a great actress’s insistence in working with the director more than six times. What Chabrol needs is enough narrative tension to open up the human tension evident in situations where people seem to feel that something is missing, but cannot quite name that yearning. Even in Chabrol’s La ceremonie where Huppert plays a lowly postal clerk hanging out with an illiterate maid in the haute bourgeois family, the extreme action she proposes, and that they follow through on, seems not to satisfy a demand, but expose the impossibility of filling it. If for example a character in a heist movie commits a crime, the desire is usually stronger than the lack: the money to be gained from the operation and the dangers of a prison sentence if they fail are evident in the viewer’s nail-biting relationship with the sequence. Instead Chabrol illustrates the futility of the gesture as at the same time he shows the gap between the lowly and the wealthy, but he doesn’t feel that the problem will be resolved by any gains made by Huppert’s character, who is promptly killed in a car crash after the family is slaughtered, or by the illiterate maid’s. This is what we mean by lack rather than desire, and thus Chabrol’s images of material wealth contain within them a frozen aspect: that they illustrate a lifestyle over a life, and one’s actions are futile because a lack will always be more present than the possibility of a gain. Chabrol might show an interest in plot, but he cannot generate out of that interest excitement because of where his thematic concerns lie. This is true of numerous Chabrol films: La femme infidele, Les biches and L’enfer, for example, all of which focus on the problem of jealousy, on what people don’t have or feel they are losing rather than with what they possess.

It is on this theme of lack (which incorporates within it jealousy, envy, emptiness, greed, lassitude) that Huppert proves a perfect Chabrol actress, even better perhaps than Chabrol’s ex-wife, Stephane Audran, who was his regular muse in that great period of the late sixties and early seventies – Les biches, Le boucher, La femme infidele, Blood Wedding – because where Audran (a more conventional beauty than Huppert) was someone for whom others could project their Chabrolian feelings, their sense of lack, Huppert is more inclined to generate these feelings. Where Why envies Audran’s character in Les biches, and her husband jealously kills her lover in La femme infidele, in Le Boucher the emptied out butcher’s murderousness in part functions out of a strange sublimation of his desire for Audran. Audran wasn’t so much a Chabrolian type as someone upon whom Chabrolian types could look upon enviously. But Huppert as an actress is frequently a creature of lack, someone for whom the world is a place where something is missing.

Thus Chabrol is the ideal Huppert director, someone who likes to show within the opulence he often offers a plenitude he then withholds. He does this by viewing objects as somewhere between functional usage and status symbol, so that we get to see the object’s emptiness more than the director showing the characters utilising its fullness. When in Merci pour le chocolat the boyfriend drives Jeanne up to Mika and Andre’s place, he says he would prefer to be spending the couple of days she will be playing piano with Polonski with her, and that driving her there is a drag. The car is neither merely status symbol nor adrenaline machine, yet it isn’t quite neutral either. It is a new hatchback sports car, the sort of vehicle that would get at least the occasional glance being driving down a street. It becomes another Chabrolian object of scrutiny, slightly divorced from characterisional desire and explicit use. Here it serves functional purpose but is not a functional vehicle. Equally, when Chabrol shows us the Muller/Polonski house in a tracking shot we see that this is an impressively large mansion. Yet for the characters it seems not aggrandizing because it is an object of their entitlement, while for Chabrol’s purpose it is utilised chiefly as an object of another’s lack. Mika might be an insider on this occasion, as Huppert’s character of the postal clerk in La ceremonie was an outsider, but the problem remains more or less the same: to show luxury as a form of emptiness. When Chabrol jokingly referred to La ceremonie as the last Marxist film, he was containing within it a serious point: it is as if he were looking at material splendour from the have-nots and not only the haves, and, whatever Chabrol’s personal politics, some of the films can easily echo Marx’s comment that “the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones”.  (Essential Writings of Karl Marx) Now of course while this is much more clearly the case with La ceremonie than with Merci pour le chocolat, nevertheless the Chabrolian method remains similar: the feeling that the luxurious lifestyle ought not be taken for granted by the film even if it might be taken for granted by some of the characters within it. Mika may feel a sense of entitlement even as she is devoid of a sense of aggrandizement, because Chabrol is very good at showing luxury emotionally divorced from those who own the means of production and are the subjects of consumption.

A particularly good example of this cinematic gaze, of this cinema of lack, comes when Huppert returns home wearing a funereal black suit and looks up and sees her husband and Jeanne working together on the piano. As she comes into the house she passes one particular abstract expressionist painting that could easily be expressing her own feelings of chaos, and the film follows her initially in close-up and then at one remove as she goes up the stairs. After entering her stepson’s bedroom (knocking briefly to check if he is out), she looks at a photographic portrait of Andre’s ex-wife, and the boy’s mother, looking remarkably like Jeanne. In the picture she has palms flat against her face in a gesture that is almost identical to Jeanne’s a moment later after the film cuts from the photo to Jeanne and Andre. It is a marvellous scene of loss in all its manifestations. It isn’t only that Mika wears black, not only that she lives an empty life in a very beautiful and tastefully furnished house; nor that there is complicity between Jeanne and Andre that she is excluded from, nor that she might be noticing the resemblance between the girl down stairs and the woman in the photograph. It is all these elements combined without at the same time any of them becoming emphatic either narratively or symbolically. They aren’t telling us about what the situation is, but hinting at what the world is not. It isn’t only about jealousy, though it contains a dimension of it, and we might wonder who this jealousy would be towards: the mother or the daughter? It isn’t only that Mika’s life is without much purpose – it is that she feels her husband’s happens to be full of it. Chabrol manages here to film in between things rather than the things themselves. The house is beautiful but…; Mika is bored…but, the abstract expressionist paintings on the wall indicate her state…and yet; the black suit she wears indicates a sense of grieving…and yet. It is this elliptical approach to event that would make sense of why Huppert would work so often with Chabrol. He manages to match her regard with a cinematic gaze that doubles the ambiguity.

It is a look one sees in numerous Huppert films, and maybe none more so outside of Chabrol than Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. First, there is the scene where the young, cocky Walter auditions for the conservatoire, and we watch Erika’s (Huppert) face as she registers feelings, but what exactly those feelings are we would be presumptuous to assume, since Erika herself wouldn’t be able to express them. While the others happily accept that the young man was quite brilliant, Erika argues there was a flashiness she didn’t like. Later in the film, some of that flashiness is evident after Erika develops strong feelings for Walter, and she sees him attentive towards another student. In each instance, Haneke’s camera gazes at Huppert’s face as it looks back on an event that she absorbs, perhaps neurotically in the first instance, psychotically, in the second. In the first she announces her reservations though they seem to the others a little preposterous. In the second she acts surreptitiously by going off and putting broken glass into the girl’s coat pocket.Haneke’s gaze tends to be more concentrated than Chabrol’s, more focused on the fixity of the stare matched by the fixity of his camera. Chabrol’s visual eye has always been much more caressive, aware that he is interested in a push me-pull me relationship with the seductive force of bourgeois mores and manners, no matter the emptiness he opens up. When in the sequence where Huppert sees Andre and Jeanne on the piano, any understanding of the character, any critique of the lifestyle, is tempered by the unequivocal elegance of what Chabrol shows us and how he shows it.

One sees this equally in the sequence where Jeanne is at home playing on the piano and asks her mother if she can borrow the car. Opening with an establishing shot of the house perched up on the hill, Chabrol holds the shot just long enough for us to see this isn’t only where someone lives but where the house reflects lifestyle choices. He then cuts to the interior with Jeanne playing the piano in a leafy conservatory, and then shows her mother working in her study. Jeanne comes in asking to borrow the car, and her mum comments on her dress, as she agrees to lend her the vehicle. What we are shown here is comfort rather than opulence, but it still has an element of a magazine photo-shoot: people could do worse than look through Chabrol’s back catalogue for houses they would like to buy in France; in Haneke’s they are usually places one would wish to avoid spending even a night in. Even in Hidden and Amour, the wealthy characters may live in attractive apartments, but Haneke’s wary eye turns them into uncanny spaces: they are unhomely. Chabrol is a director who nevertheless often wants his houses to be very homely, whether it happens to be the suburban pile in La femme infidele, the flat Helene lives in Le Boucher, the Brittany chateau in La ceremonie, the house in the south of France in Les biches. Yet at the same time these homely spaces are also removed from the characters, whether they own them (like Mika), covet them (like Huppert in La ceremonie), or feel miserable within them – as when the husband finds out about his wife’s affair in La femme infidele. The point is that though the houses are beautiful, often characters lack a dimension that can make their relationship with them healthily desirous.

This perhaps brings together all our points at once: the notion of Lacanian lack, Deleuzian perversion, Badiou’s insistence on slowness over speed, and, most importantly, Huppert’s capacity to indicate Chabrol’s ambivalent aesthetic. Chabrol doesn’t want to subvert narrative and thus still relies strongly on plots, but he does want to pervert it by showing perversity of motive that denies full strength to narrative plotting and found the perfect actress for his purposes. This is a motive sometimes so perverse that it indicates a lack of self rather than a desire for material gain, and, to illustrate the material at one remove from the psychological, Chabrol slows his images down to linger over details that are aesthetically pleasing, but that often help illustrate the psychologically damaged: some void greater than the wealth presented. It makes Chabrol’s work an ambivalent oeuvre to behold. Superficially he is a director often working in the thriller genre, but his fascination with behaviour and setting undermines the thrill of the chase and insists we concentrate on the arduous accumulation of lifestyles that cannot quite become lives. It is an important body of work with well over fifty films, but even watching a handful of them, and perhaps especially the ones mentioned here, can give us a sense of a world that safely earns the term Chabrolian. Yet certain actors help him capture the Chabrolian and no actor more than Huppert. As fellow director Patrice Chereau once proposed, Huppert “is a storm in the void”, someone who “gives herself to others while at the same time is absent” (Isabelle Huppert: Woman of Many Faces), and while it might be Chereau’s observation, nobody filmed it more consistently than Chabrol.


©Tony McKibbin