1995, NR, 111 min. Directed by Claude Chabrol. Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., May 9, 1997
There's a reason why our law draws such a clear line between “crimes of passion” (judged with relative lenience), and those committed “in cold blood” (the gravest offenses, sometimes punishable by death). We all know that in a white-hot flash of rage, conscience and self-control can be swept from our minds, creating a morally blind moment when anything is possible. La Cérémonie is about the other kind of transgression -- the cold, offhanded kind that shakes us to the center of our being simply because it's so far beyond our power of comprehension. Chabrol's icily brilliant adaptation of Ruth Rendell's A Judgment in Stone may be the most disturbing film you'll see this year, Crash and the upcoming, necrophilia-themed Kissed notwithstanding. Unease starts building from the opening scene, when a French haute-bourgeois mom (Bisset) hires aloof, raw-boned, young Sophie (Bonnaire) as a live-in maid for her country home. There's something a bit odd in the way Sophie interacts with people; polite and articulate, but never initiating conversation, merely reacting. Other peculiarities surface as she takes over the Lelièvre household. Simple machines, like dishwashers, seem beyond her ken, and she's both illiterate and incapable of even the simplest math. These handicaps are artfully concealed from the family, which gladly accepts her quirky manner as a tradeoff for domestic order. But things start going awry when Sophie forms a passionate friendship with a cynical, iconoclastic local postmistress named Jeanne (Huppert), whose class-obsessed world view posits the wealthy Lelièvres as demons incarnate. The friendship is a release for both women, with troubling secrets and dark urges streaming forth like venom. Under Jeanne's spell, Sophie begins to rebel against the imagined oppression of the relentlessly decent Lelièvres, first in small ways then in bold, reckless strokes that lead to a horrific climax which slices home like a shaft of cold, jagged steel in the belly. Chabrol, whose career has been long and uneven, is back in peak form with La Cérémonie, which earned six 1995 César (French Oscar equivalent) award nominations, including best direction, and a best actress award for Huppert. Building tension with a mastery that honors his idol, Hitchcock, Chabrol slowly parcels out information in a way that deepens, rather than resolves the mystery. Then, when truth and moral clarity seem hopelessly remote, he brings them home in a breathtaking rush that sends you home chilled but exhilarated. With its deliberate pace and somewhat clinical view of its characters, La Cérémonie is hardly classic summer movie fare. But for those who are susceptible to its hypnotic allure, it could rank among the season's best.