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DVD SAVANT

La Cérémonie


La Cérémonie
Home Vision Entertainment
1995 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 112 min. / Street Date July 27, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jacqueline Bisset, Virginie Ledoyen
Cinematography Bernard Zitzermann
Production Designer Daniel Mercier
Film Editor Monique Fardoulis
Original Music Matthieu Chabrol
Written by Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff from the novel A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell
Produced by Christoph Holch, Marin Karmitz, Ira von Gienanth
Directed by Claude Chabrol

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Claude Chabrol's Violette Nozière and A Story of Women are intense stories of murder determined by underlying social forces. The "French Hitchcock's" signature style is to set in motion a series of diabolical relationships and events, and then to make his camera a neutral observer of the human spectacle that results.

La Cérémonie is perhaps Chabrol's purest and most thoughtful thriller. Like a lot of puzzle pieces thrown thrown together, the random chemistry between two isolated working women and a well-off country family congeals into a horrible murder. Chabrol's clinically cold eye makes no excuses for his lethal heroines, and neither does it judge them. For all their flaws, his characters are warmly human.

Synopsis:

Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) works as a maid in a country estate. She hides the fact that she can't read, a deception that prompts a communication disconnect with her new employers the Lelievres. Wife Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) is thrilled to find such an efficient maid but is dismayed when Sophie's underlying resentment shows through in tiny ways. Husband George becomes enraged at Sophie's new friendship with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the local post office clerk. His prejudice against Jeanne is based on rumors that Jeanne may have murdered her own child, years ago; unknown to the Lelievres, Sophie was similarly accused - of killing her father.

Several plays and films have been based on the famous 1930s Papin case, in which a pair of maids murdered their mistress and her daughter; Home Vision has an excellent DVD out of a recent film called Murderous Maids. La Cérémonie is a less sensationalized version that distills the story to its basics and sublimates the sexual component - the historical killers were lesbian sisters. As with the filmic partner-killers seen in Compulsion, In Cold Blood and The Onion Field, Jeanne and Sophie are individually harmless but deadly when combined. Jeanne is bitter and spiteful and Sophie is the unthinking passive partner. Normally reserved and emotionally unresponsive, she springs to life in the company of the malicious Jeanne, revealing below her placid exterior an equal hatred of the upper class.

Chabrol doesn't paint the Lelievres as callous or abusive to create his conflict. They're a loving family who care about each other and don't wish to exploit anyone. Because Sophie is so dedicated and efficient, Georges and Catherine never question her uncommunicative nature. The Lelievres are targeted simply for what they are: The wealthy, the employers, they who make the rules.

By the time Catherine's charming daughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) has discovered Sophie's secret it is too late. The maid and the postal clerk have already melded into a dangerous pair, feeding off Jeanne's mounting feud with Georges Lelievre. Once the women exchange secrets about their violent pasts, they become confederates in a fatal conspiracy, a relationship that moves from dull normality to appalling violence. For them, the killing spree is a joyful liberation from the bonds of a classed society.

Claude Chabrol once again shows himself a superior director of actresses. His frequent collaborator Isabelle Huppert plays a selfish and petty troublemaker, while Jacqueline Bisset's portrait of a charming country wife is flawless. The prize characterization is Sandrine Bonnaire's emotionally stunted, guardedly perfectionist Sophie. Her excellent work habits disguise a void where judgment and self-restraint should be. The key scene is when the friendly Melinda inadvertently discovers her maid's secret handicap: Sophie's immediate, threatening response is chilling. This harmless-looking woman is capable of anything.


Home Vision's DVD of La Cérémonie is a stunningly colorful enhanced transfer that allows the beauty of the French countryside to become another character in the drama. An 18-minute promotional featurette for the film contains several excellent interviews with Chabrol and his main actresses, all of which are intrigued by the ambiguities of the story. Huppert and Bonnaire explain how they made up their own minds as to the culpability of Jeanne and Sophie. Jacqueline Bisset believes her Catherine Lelievre character to be innocent of Jeanne's vicious accusations.

Jovial director Chabrol sums it all up when he's asked if there are still class differences in France: "The rich don't think so, but go ask the homeless. Class is a very real thing to the poor." La Cérémonie never makes class rebellion an issue, but it seems the only explanation for Jeanne and Sophie's eruption of violence.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, La Cérémonie rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 1995 featurette with the stars and director; original trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2004





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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