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.
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
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
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:
Supplements: 1995 featurette with the stars and director; original trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson