Claude Chabrol’s Nightcap, perhaps better known to audiences as Merci Pour le Chocolat, likely remains one of the calmest, most level-headed thrillers ever made, to the extent that even calling the film a “thriller” suggests a generic orientation that Chabrol has only basic, nominal interest in pursuing. Instead, Nightcap is an inverted thriller, hollowed of the visual horrors affiliated with genre archetype, where the ease and calmness with which a group of people are categorically absolved through privilege from immediate juridical consequence constitutes something much more insidious than a dropped mask or a smoking gun.
A significant amount of that guiding, atmospheric personification is due to Isabelle Huppert, in a performance that captures the quintessence of a calculating, sociopathic decadence, which Chabrol’s mostly stable, even sterile mise-en-scène displays without affecting in a superficial manner. Serving as a sort of companion piece to his previous film, The Color of Lies, Nightcap is focused on a guileful lot of politically and morally bankrupt, capitalistic bourgeoisie, whose wealth seems to stem from generations of cash-stacking nepotism. These are no rich sojourners; as overseen by Mika (Huppert), the Muller chocolate company affords the luxuries of a Swiss villa, occupied by Mika, her pianist husband, André (Jacques Dutronc), and feeble son Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), and allows them to adorn their finely scrubbed-and-trimmed abode with not one, but two grand pianos, as well as a plethora of vases and paintings, which Chabrol makes often cunning, juxtapositional usage of throughout. The more outward thriller elements find resonance in Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), an ingénue pianist who becomes the villa’s new habitué, not only to bang out some Liszt with André, but because she’s been led to believe that André may, in fact, be her actual father, leading to a Vertigo-esque situation à la Carlotta Valdes (and red herring) in which Jeanne studies photos of Lisbeth, André’s dead ex-wife.
Chabrol teases these ice-queen or femme-fatale archetypes only as a means to reject them, as simple manifestations of a populist cinema that’s become perverted by filmmakers who forget film noir was as rooted in social critique as focused on chiaroscuro shots of dampened streets. The camera and editing remain on an even, almost continuity basis throughout, aside from sporadic ruptures that, even then, make barely a ripple amid the film’s larger visual schema. That includes a jump-cut-cum-swish-pan during a crucial conversation between Jeanne and her mother, Louise (Brigitte Catillon), and a curious reframing to a canted angle during a late scene inside the Swiss villa. Chabrol quite literally tips his hat (or camera) in the latter case, reminding viewers that, for all of the film’s seemingly stilted and immobile demeanor, what’s most vital here remains just off screen or, even, above the screen, where a deliberate mystification of both economic and cultural capital by an unseen puppeteer dictates all.
The Color of Lies suggests something quite similar, but Nightcap goes even further by eliminating any presence of outside authority, embodied by a detective in the earlier film. Here, these prisoners are in something of an inversion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, where there’s no guard watching the inmates and, most perversely, the inmates know it. It’s that sort of perversion that most offends Chabrol, such that he chooses to callously, seemingly endlessly linger on Huppert’s face in the film’s final shot, as tears drain from her eyes and she attempts, by curling into the fetal position, as a return to the womb. The camera becomes Chabrol’s weapon, the equivalent of Norman Bates’s knife in Psycho or Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet in Double Indemnity. After all of the chilly distance, Chabrol ends with a fireball that irreverently, furiously, and ever so ironically, confirms Mika’s earlier statement: “Keeping up appearances is all that counts.”
Cohen Media Group’s new Blu-ray is a marked improvement over First Run Features’ non-anamorphic, nigh unwatchable 2003 DVD, such that if you’ve only seen the film prior on said DVD (like yours truly), you’ll likely feel as if you’re watching an entirely new film. Clean, crisp HD images restore Claude Chabrol’s tight, carefully framed shots, further revealing the director’s own perversity in presenting such despicable characters without visual blemish. Aside from some mild pops and faint scratches at various points, this is an excellent visual transfer, equaling Cohen’s previous work on Chabrol releases. Likewise, the sound mix is nearly without fault, mixing the tones of classical music as evenly as the often hushed dialogue, so that one doesn’t overpower the other. Aside from some spelling and grammatical subtitle flubs throughout, Cohen has more than adequately restored the film to Chabrol’s original intent.
Critics Wade Major and Andy Klein provide a meandering feature-length commentary that’s heavy on trivia and context for Chabrol and Huppert’s working relationship, but offers little by way of in-depth analysis. Instead of rigorously mounting a case that builds scene-by-scene over the course of the commentary, the pair’s engagement is rather stilted, as they explain meaningless truths, like that Anna Mouglalis isn’t actually playing the piano in her scenes, or repeatedly point out the film’s prevalent spider imagery, which harkens toward the title of Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb. One gets the sense that they’re largely winging it, rather than bringing substantial, pre-conceived insight. Also included is a well-written essay by Peter Tonguette that tersely explains the film’s narrative events and evolving character motivations over the duration of the film. Finally, the film’s 2014 re-release trailer rounds out the rather scant list of special features.
You won’t feel back-stabbed by the gorgeous audio-visual transfer on Cohen Media Group’s new Blu-ray of Claude Chabrol’s essential Nightcap, though you may find the scant assortment of extras to be something of a betrayal.