Founding member of the French New Wave Claude Chabrol, who sadly passed away in 2010, was always known for his ability to make great, compelling thrillers. Nowhere is this more true than his 1995 film La Cérémonie, rereleased this week on Blu-ray and DVD by Artificial Eye. Adapted from Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone, Chabrol and co-writer Caroline Eliacheff shift the action from 1970s England to France in what is a gripping psychodrama.
The young, quiet Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire) arrives in a small town in Brittany seeking employment as a maid and finds work with the wealthy Lelievre family. Sophie is illiterate, a secret she studiously hides from everyone including her employers. She carries out her tasks with efficiency, made all the more easy when she finds a seemingly kindred spirit in the brash local post-mistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert). It is this friendship however that will ultimately lead to Sophie’s downfall.
Chabrol has often been called a ‘disciple of Hitchcock’ for his ability to build suspense in his films. This is certainly true of La Cérémonie which, from the opening scene, provides just enough in the form of Bonnaire’s ice-cold, reserved performance to tell the audience that all is not right. A key element to Chabrol’s success is how the everyday tasks and relationships that occur in a small town start to speak volumes about the people who live there. When Sophie buys a bar of chocolate and is unable to work out the change, her purse is grabbed by the irritated shop keeper. Chabrol takes simple moments and makes them gripping and painful, saying so much more with image than can be expressed on the page.
The ultimate tension in La Cérémonie lies in Chabrol’s themes of class-division. The privileged Lelievres are hypocrites and mild snobs – the mother of the family Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) will chain smoke in front of her adolescent children then reprimand them for smoking, whilst the father insists on dressing in black tie to watch an opera on TV – yet they are capable of acts of kindness. The film is laced with such moments which illustrate the divide between the illiterate maid and her employers, generating a tension that propels the narrative.
Added to this is an underlying sexual tension between Sophie and Jeanne that hints at a desire for something more than friendship. Chabrol never directly express what is happening under the surface of his characters, leaving it for the audience to decide. With La Cérémonie, Chabrol proved himself to be a master of suspense and drama leading the audience to a powerful and memorable conclusion. This is nothing less than deliciously good cinema.