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Friday, October 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Isabelle Huppert schemes to perfection in 'Merci pour le Chocolat'

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review


***
"Merci pour le Chocolat" with Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Anna Mouglalis, Rodolphe Pauly. Directed by Claude Chabrol, from a screenplay by Caroline Eliacheff and Chabrol. 99 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In French with English subtitles. Varsity through Thursday.

Throughout the delightfully sneaky French thriller "Merci pour le Chocolat," Isabelle Huppert, as scheming wife Mika, crochets what looks like a chocolate-brown cobweb; it's a perfectly appropriate prop for this elegant spider. The director of her family's posh chocolate business, she's also a smooth second wife to concert pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc). But what's in that hot chocolate she so carefully serves every evening? And what really happened to André's late first wife?

The marvelous Huppert (who's got quite a trifecta this year with "8 Women," "The Piano Teacher," and this film) is a master of the deadpan gaze; she can convey nuance with a face that doesn't even seem to be breathing. "I'm always meddling," says Mika, with a toss of her perfectly arranged hair and an enigmatic expression. Director/co-writer Claude Chabrol gives her plenty of room, and lets us wonder exactly what she's up to — he doesn't signal the story to us ahead of time.

There's a wonderful sense of place in the film; Mika and André live in a Gothic-looking mansion entwined in bare vines (another spiderweb image), where André plays a black piano so shiny we see his flying hands reflected in the wood. And while not a great deal happens in "Merci pour le Chocolat," it really doesn't matter — it's enough to watch Huppert scheming, with her small, intelligent eyes as steady as any noir villain, and to enjoy the perfectly pitched web of tension that Chabrol spins.

"I have a knack for doing wrong," says Mika near the end, her face perfectly cold. It's a moment reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity," and as tasty as fine chocolate.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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