Adapted from “A Judgement In Stone”, a 1977 novel by Ruth Rendell, La Cérémonie is yet another wonderful film from writer-director Claude Chabrol (helped in adapting the tale from page to screen by Caroline Eliacheff).
Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire) is hired as a maid by the Lelièvre family, a unit consisting of two adults and two children (both in their later teens, at least). While very good at her job, in most respects, Sophie has a secret that she struggles to maintain. She cannot read or write. She may be able to keep up a pretence of literacy, however, with the help of a new friend, a postmistress named Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert). Jeanne is no friend of the Lelièvre family though, and her presence soon starts to cause problems.
Making great use of a super cast, La Cérémonie is a film that scatters small details throughout every scene to build something as potentially darkly comedic as it is menacing. Viewers can sense that things are finely-balanced at almost every turn, and the mix of characters onscreen ensure that you are rarely 100% sure of who you should be rooting for, even as some people try to paint others in a bad light. I am not familiar with the source material, I don’t think I have read any Ruth Rendell books yet in my life, but I suspect that there is less ambiguity there than there is here. Although I should note that it is apparently widely-regarded as one of the best writing works by Rendell, for those wanting to dive into her work.
Bonnaire and Huppert are excellent together, happily forming a stronger bond with each shared experience that allows them to bring out the worst in one another. The latter is especially entertaining, quick to provide what she views as essential information to someone she can claim as a firm friend. Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Cassel are very good as Mr & Mrs. Lelièvre, and Virginie Ledoyen and Valentin Merlet are almost as good as the mature children of the household, although the character played by Merlet feels like he could easily have been cut from the plot without much really being changed.
While it may wear clothing that helps it look cosy and sedate, this is very much a wolf hiding in a woolly jumper. The sharp teeth are there, not just for the biting wit either, and the finale delivers a gut punch that rivals many better-known, bleaker, endings, even if there is still a vein of pitch-black humour and irony running through it.
Excellent stuff all round. The more I see from Chabrol, and I have seen a fair few of his films now (and own a couple of nice boxsets released over the past few years), the more I like his French Hitchcockian style.
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