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With: Benoît Magimel, Laura Smet, Aurore Clément, Bernard Le Coq, Solène Bouton, Anna Mihalcea, Michel Duchaussoy
Written by: Pierre Leccia, Claude Chabrol, based on the novel by Ruth Rendell
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 110
Date: 07/09/2004

The Bridesmaid (2006)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Tricks of the 'Maid'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Bridesmaid on DVD

Into this weak movie year comes an old standby, Claude Chabrol, pulverizing all the weightless cotton candy like a heavy, rolling mass of saltwater taffy with his best new film in years, The Bridesmaid.

The last time Chabrol adapted a novel by British crime writer Ruth Rendell, he wound up with a classic, La Ceremonie (1995). Apparently, Ms. Rendell is good luck for Mr. Chabrol, because lighting has struck twice.

In many of Chabrol's recent films, from good ones like Merci pour le chocolat (2002) to shakier items like The Flower of Evil (2003), the 76 year-old French New Wave veteran has given less than his full attention to a rock-solid plot. With The Bridesmaid, however, the entire contraption comes together with a satisfying click. It opens today as part of the Landmark Theater repertory calendar (the Lumiere or the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley).

The film begins slyly by setting off several plot threads at once, and Chabrol doses each with his trademark "creeping dread." Dotty, blond single mother Christine (Aurore Clement) has begun dating again, but the fellow, Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), is of questionable quality. Still, Christine decides to make him a present of a prized bust of a woman's head that has previously occupied a spot of honor on the family's lawn.

Christine's eldest son, handsome, hardworking Philippe (Benoît Magimel) is particularly upset by the loss of the bust, while his two younger sisters, responsible, engaged-to-be-married Sophie (Solène Bouton) and troublemaker Patricia (Anna Mihalcea), merely think he's a loser. Chabrol carefully inserts a scene in which Christine brings her children to Gerard's place for dinner. Gerard wasn't expecting them and he subtly shuts the doors of his dining room and the candlelight dinner for two he had prepared. Nonetheless, a series of circumstances lead the family to believe that Gerard is a vindictive backstabber.

The Bridesmaid continues setting up various threads: Philippe sneaks onto Gerard's property and steals the bust back, Sophie prepares for her upcoming wedding to her gawky fiancée, and Patricia borrows money and disappears on mysterious outings. But after all this tantalizing detail, the plot suddenly, effectively settles on Philippe. Attending Sophie's wedding, his mind on other things, a peculiar, yet alluring bridesmaid gazes at him and introduces herself as Senta (Laura Smet). Philippe notes that she looks a great deal like his stolen bust, which he keeps in his closet. And, when she turns up at his house, they immediately embark on a passionate and all-encompassing relationship. Senta talks of how the couple is destined for one another and that everything she has is his.

Chabrol plays this sexual, emotional intensity for all it's worth, eclipsing the sometimes chilly effect of his previous films (usually embodied by the clever, subtle actress Isabelle Huppert). Senta -- who has chosen her name in honor of The Flying Dutchman -- has her own moments of distance, but it only entrances Philippe all the more. He can't sleep or concentrate on anything when he's away from her. When she begins to talk of murder, his life slowly becomes unglued.

Chabrol, unlike Hitchcock, is not one for payoffs. Rather than building suspense and releasing it like a roller coaster ride, he thrives on uncertainty. The film is drenched in the kind of helpless guilt and dread in which Fritz Lang and Roman Polanski specialize. Early in the film, Chabrol lets you know that any potential action could be a seed for something that grows and ferments and bites back later on. A scene of Sophie and her awkward new husband making out in the living room could lead to something more sinister, or maybe not. Maybe a tramp camped out in Senta's driveway will become somehow important. Or maybe not. Or the bust that Philippe hides in his closet ever more carelessly each time he takes it out could lead to something -- or maybe not.

While we wait, however, Chabrol lets us get wrapped up in Philippe's passion and suffering. It helps that Smet gives a performance worthy of Huppert, restrained but vivid. She tantalizes the camera and the audience as easily as she does Philippe, dangling emotions and pulling them back like a master fisherman. As Philippe, Magimel matches her, relying on more than just his looks and finding a center to this busy, troubled fellow.

Even a Chabrol this good will probably turn off viewers looking for the perfect snap of a Hitchcockian thriller, as it will likely turn off cineastes looking for something a bit more cerebral. But when Chabrol and his French New Wave counterparts (Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they looked to second-rate genre films for inspiration in order to counter the gilded, snooty films of the day. Thankfully, Chabrol is still doing the same thing today, come hell or high water.

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