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The upper-class owner of a gallery, Catherine Lelievre, hires the efficient and quiet maid Sophie to work in the family manor in the French countryside. Her husband Georges Lelievre, who is an opera lover, her daughter Melinda and her teenage son Gilles welcome Sophie and appreciate her work. Sophie soon befriends the postmistress Jeanne, who is a bad egg and encourages Sophie to rebel against her employers, but the maid stays submissive. However, Sophie is ashamed of a secret and feels uncomfortable in many situations, finding a way to hide her secret. When Georges tells Sophie that he does not want Jeanne in his house, Sophie stands up to him. Melinda discovers her secret and Sophie blackmails her, but Melinda tells her parents what happened. Georges fires Sophie and she returns to the house later with Jeanne on the rampage. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In this character study of two hateful middle-aged women (not so middle-aged in the movie, however, as in the novel by Ruth Rendell) we are made to fathom the bad that may befall the good.
Claude Chabrol's direction is clean, crisp and uncluttered--which isn't always the case, witness his Madame Bovary (1991), which is a bit too leisurely and L'Enfer (1993) which muddles a whole lot. Maybe it's the editing. Anyway this is more like his quietly brilliant Une affaire de femmes (1988) with a fine script and striking performances by Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, handsomely supported by Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel and the very pretty Virginie Ledoyen.
Bonnaire plays Sophie, an intense taciturn woman harboring dark secrets, whom the Leliévres have hired to cook and keep house at their country home. Bisset is Catherine Leliévre and Cassel her husband. They exist in bourgeois heaven avec matrimonial bliss with two teenagers, a family so closely knit and so charmingly together that they watch a two-part production of Mozart's Don Giovanni on TV, just the four of them cosily on the couch.
Well, this sort of unobtainable happiness doesn't sit well with Jeanne (Huppert) who is a lowly postal clerk living alone whose past includes the (accidental?) killing of her four-year-old daughter. Jeanne takes a fancy to the Leliévre's strange new maid with the idea of showing her something besides work. They strike up a fateful friendship that we know is leading to something horrible.
Huppert is as good as I've seen her, which is very good indeed. She is particularly striking here in an uncharacteristic role as a spiteful, working class woman with a heart of vengeance against anybody better off than she is. There is just a touch of sly irony in her performance suggesting that she is having a particularly good time playing the nasty. Bonnaire's stark performance as the unbalanced and humorless, reclusive Sophie will remain etched in your brain. Apart they are like inert, harmless chemicals. Together they catalyze one another and become brazen and explosive.
The story, filled with little foreshadowing of the tragedy to come, gilds the lily of our tristesse by making the Leliévres so very, very nice. We are reminded of the violent hatred by the proletariat toward the privileged classes, in this case acted out by two loonies against an innocent, but representative family, echoing not only the Russian Revolution but even more so the French Revolution, now two hundred years old.
What I am trying to figure out why this is called La Cérémonie. Maybe it is a ceremony of execution.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
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