By the 1990s, French filmmaker Claude Chabrol was on an upswing, following a slump during the ‘80s, which saw the release of a few less-than-stellar efforts with several critics brandishing their pitchforks. Chabrol’s heyday was the ‘70s, when he hit a paydirt streak with such films like La Rupture (1970) and Le Boucher (1970), films that had him coined as “the French Hitchcock”. The filmmaker’s understated studies on the French social classes were entirely revealing in his chosen genre of the murder mystery, helming stories that probed the “why” of a mystery while carefully leaving much to rest to allow the airs of enigma to inform the narrative.
Early ‘90s efforts like Betty (1992) and L’enfer (1994) captured the spark and dynamism of his ‘70s social dramas, paving the way for what is arguably his best work since Le Boucher. Based on the novel A Judgement in Stone (1977) by the late British mystery author Ruth Rendell, 1995’s La Cérémonie put him back in favor with critics and audiences, earning the film seven French César nominations, one of which its leading star Isabelle Huppert would win, as well as a Best Foreign Language win at the National Society of Film Critics.
If one knows and understands the work of Chabrol, then it’s fairly easy to see what enticed the filmmaker about Rendell’s novel of a house servant on the brink of madness. At once a delicate and dangerously sharp and incisive commentary on the hypocrisies and animosities between the classes, Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone tells the story of an illiterate woman named Eunice, who finds herself in the employ of a wealthy British household in the north country. Keeping her illiteracy a carefully guarded secret, Eunice makes do with her circumstances to the best of her abilities. When her illiteracy becomes increasingly problematic, she turns to the town’s religious fanatic, Joan, for friendship and help – a relationship that will have deadly consequences.
Chabrol follows Rendell’s source material quite faithfully, but curiously, he takes inspiration from an earlier English-language version of the story, filmed in 1986, a Canadian production starring British New Wave Film’s former it-girl, Rita Tushingham. A decidedly weak effort that banked on histrionics and a ramped-up atmosphere of violence, The Housekeeper, directed by Tushingham’s then-husband, Ousama Rawi, failed to connect with audiences and disappeared quickly in the milieu of larger, more prominent Hollywood productions.
However, The Housekeeper seemed to strike a chord with Chabrol; he formally credits Rawi (who took some liberties from Rendell’s novel) with inspiration for his own version of the story. Rendell was reportedly not pleased with Rawi’s take on her novel, but here, Chabrol finds an agreeable balance between the two sources, merging Rendell’s deeply-textured character study with Rawi’s more thriller-influenced reading of the novel.
Sandrine Bonnaire, in the role of the house servant (who has been renamed Sophie in Chabrol’s adaptation), forgoes the high dramatics of Tushingham for a far more glacial and restrained performance of subtle nuance. Her Sophie is not given to panic or tear-soaked defensiveness but rather cautiously observant premeditations, which render her almost wraith-like in the family household. The icy barb hidden by her docile veneer, however, is first glimpsed in our introduction to her at a job interview for a live-in housemaid held by Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset), mother of the Lelièvre household in Brittany.
Insistent on her requirements for the job, Sophie coldly assesses the protocols of the Lelièvre household with few words and a hard stare. Catherine, taken aback some, is still impressed enough with Sophie’s qualifications to take her in. The Lelièvre family is privileged almost stereotypically, a set-up that gives Sophie reason to distrust her environment and the more sympathetic viewers to align themselves with Sophie’s eventual plight. Catherine is the owner of an art gallery, and her son Gilles is a pseudo-intellectual who, though well-meaning, is seemingly ignorant of his privilege. Catherine’s husband (he is her second), Georges, is a no-nonsense businessman who has little time for deeply emotive conversations. His daughter Melinda, a college student, is cognizant of her lavish lifestyle but cannot evince any true sense of empathy with the social classes below her privileged one. Sophie keeps to herself. Between chores and wandering about town, she spends ample amounts of time in her room, watching television.
When Sophie’s illiteracy is nearly exposed (she is handed a list of groceries, which she cannot read), she seeks out the help of post office worker Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who holds a longstanding grudge against the Lelièvres. Jeanne, the town gossip who steams open envelopes in the hopes she will discover people’s dirty secrets, happily accompanies Sophie (feigning poor eyesight and, therefore, an inability to read the shopping lists) on her grocery trips, nudging herself into Sophie’s life in an attempt to get closer to the Lelièvres.
Jeanne puts in the work to turn Sophie’s mind, telling her all sorts of secrets she has learned about the Lelièvres. Sophie is wary but distant, and upon her discovery of Jeanne’s public shaming of a legal incident involving the death of her child, we learn the depths of the combined women’s manipulations. When Sophie’s illiteracy is finally exposed by Melinda no less, it leads to a downward spiral in which Sophie and Jeanne are fatally pitted against the Lelièvre household.
Chabrol’s treatment of the subject matter of warring social classes is done with a spacious sense of delineation. He doesn’t so much direct the action as he allows it to unfold naturally before him. Huppert and Bonnaire, intuitive actors who play off one another with a steam engine’s momentum and rhythm, do not push for any desired effect. Rather, they are swayed into a comfortable cadence by the expert material of Rendell, whose source novel deconstructs the matters of class and all its emotional constituents (envy, hatred, and resentment) through a fair but probing exploration of its social issues. Filmed under a cool glass of calm (bucolic colors capture the quaint and quiet town of the story’s locale) and enwrapped in an airy and sleepy atmosphere of humans in isolated nature, La Cérémonie makes judicious use of its setting to starkly contrast the two warring classes that silently battle it out for dominance.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release delivers this film in a razor-sharp transfer that finally corrects the color palette of a previous, inferior DVD release by HVE. Here, the colors and images are rendered clear and crisp so that we may appreciate Chabrol’s use of countryside locales as part of the larger story. The dialogue is clean and clear, with optional English subtitles. Supplements include a making-of feature, an introduction to the film by filmmaker Bong Joon Ho (Parasite), archival interviews with Chabrol and his actors, and an interesting feature on the use of offscreen sound in the film.
Chabrol’s achievement here, one that Rawi failed at in his own adaptation, is to move the story forward at an involving pace with as minimal violence as possible. His coordination of events, a sequence that patiently strips layer from layer of Sophie and Jeanne’s pathologies, has a marksman’s timing – a narrative intelligence that works wondrously to implement the thriller elements into the story without an overbearing spill of needless action or aggression. La Cérémonie heavily blurs the lines between “right” and “wrong” in its story of bitter retribution. No true evil emerges when backstories are taken into account; Chabrol makes a point of distinguishing between “villain” and “criminal”.
Like many of his films, La Cérémonie closes with an amusing (perhaps smug) denouement, a few shades shy from a full-on twist that adds yet another texture to this mystery of socio-cultural tension, misunderstandings, and risky shifts. Rendell, it has been reported, called this film the most accurate of all adaptations of her novels, citing Chabrol’s intuitive nature in his reading of her work for the film’s success. He would go on to film yet another of the author’s novels, The Bridesmaid, in 2004, an equally penetrating story of a psychological breakdown, if not an entirely successful one.
La Cérémonie, as it stands, is one of the finest examples of film in the last 50 years that deeply explores the phenomenon of the folie à deux. It is also a most chilling and revealing character study of what happens when madness sees its own face for the first time.