Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, Valentin Merlet, Serge Rousseau
Written by: Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff, based on a novel by Ruth Rendell
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 08/30/1995

La cérémonie (1995)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Going Postal

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

That old French New Wave master Claude Chabrol never really found the admiration he deserved, perhaps because he worked regularly and steadily, largely in the suspense genre, and routinely turned in superior work. He never really smacked anyone upside the head with any specific masterpiece, but since his passing in 2010, many among his fifty-plus films have emerged as greats. One of them is La Cérémonie (1995), based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, due to its subtle and creepy mise-en-scene.

Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire) arrives for a meeting with Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset), and is hired to become the family's maid. The rest of the family is Catherine's husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), her son, Gilles (Valentin Merlet), and her stepdaughter, Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen). What nobody knows is that Sophie is illiterate and must pretend to work around not being able to read notes or shopping lists. Sophie's lying and trickery create suspense, widening the gulf between trust and betrayal. But things get darker when Sophie befriends postal worker Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), an unpredictable free spirit whose actions bely a severe hatred of the wealthy family Sophie works for.

This builds, of course, to an explosion of violence, but Chabrol constantly subverts expectations by the way he sets up shots and by the way he finishes them (using a combination of Hitchcock and Lang, two filmmakers Chabrol studied fervently). What really makes the film work, however, is that Chabrol not only earns sympathy for Sophie, but he also allows the rich family to also emerge as flawed and likably human; their dumb dinner conversations and bickering show no haughty sense of superiority, but rather a genuine love for each other. Thus, the ending packs all that much more of a wallop.

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