Claude Chabrol, one of the original lights of the French New Wave, makes thrillers that would simply never be produced anywhere near a Hollywood studio. His movies, even the most entertaining, depend on the slow build; while many of his 40-some features are accessible detective or crime stories with a heavy Hitchcock influence, their pacing and priorities are undeniably European. In the United States, they are lucky to play more than a few art houses. (Some of his best work, including the recent L'Enfer, has gone unreleased in America.)
Chabrol not only avoids violence at the beginning of La Ceremonie, he holds off until the last 15 minutes. He spends the greater part of his film describing a bourgeois "paradise" and introducing the dissonant class elements that will lead to its destruction.
Catherine Lelivre (Jacqueline Bisset) lives in a large house in the French countryside with her husband, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel); a son, Gilles (Valentin Merlet); and (intermittently) a college-age daughter, Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen). Catherine is a retired fashion model; Georges, a successful businessman. Their lives are so perfect, so comfortable, that the worst they have to contend with is the servant problem: It's so hard to find good help these days. After a brief interview, Catherine hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as their new live-in maid.
Sophie is hard-working, obedient, pliable -- everything a maid should be. But there is, from the start, something a little off about her, something that Catherine is slow to pick up on. It's not just that 80 percent of her dialogue consists of "Yes," "No," "Maybe" and (most of all) "I don't know"; it's that her choice of response often makes no sense. ("Do you like your room?" "I don't know.") Her conversational skills are about as developed as those of a Magic 8-Ball.
While it's never quite clear whether Sophie is dyslexic or autistic or what, we do discover she is illiterate, a condition that explains much of her reticence. She would likely continue in a state of vegetative social withdrawal were it not for Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a local postal worker who forces herself on Sophie.
The two form a bond: They are both outcasts, with similar violent secrets in their histories. In manner, Jeanne is the very opposite of Sophie, all hyper energy and aggression. Her behavior is, at the very least, obnoxious and possibly a good deal more pathological. Since she has an ongoing feud with Georges, she enlists Sophie as her spy in the household.
In some ways, Chabrol's long tease makes the inevitable explosion of violence more unsettling than Wes Craven's more continual assault. He takes his time on character details, making the Lelivres likable and recognizable, if utterly shallow. He is clearly concerned with the class differences that make any permanent accommodation between the family and the outsiders impossible. The two are doomed to clash.
Still, if there is a problem with Chabrol's approach, it is the sheer coldness of the story. As in his acclaimed Story of Women, the director stands aloof from all the characters here. We spend the most time with Sophie, but her unspecified interior defect makes her always an object of observation, not identification. And while Melinda, the daughter, is portrayed in an almost totally positive light, she is no more than a supporting player.
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Chabrol introduces plausible violence into a blatantly familiar world. His technique doesn't hit you over the head like most Hollywood thrillers. It's more designed to give you the long-term creeps.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jacqueline Bisset.