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'Ceremonie': Maid to Order

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1997

It has been a long time coming, but Claude Chabrol’s "La Ceremonie" is well worth the wait. This 1995 French psychodrama is a clinically composed, mounting nightmare whose power lies in its air of normalcy. When the Lelievres, a well-to-do French family, hire servant Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), life at their isolated chateau undergoes a welcome transformation. Sophie’s references check out. And though she’s almost robotically reserved -- she snaps "I understand" when issued commands -- she cleans impeccably. What more could they ask?

But there are hints of trouble from the beginning. At her initial interview with Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset), Sophie is unaware what day it is. She can’t drive and pointedly refuses to learn. She also has trouble reading things, blaming her eyesight. When Catherine’s husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) drops her off at the optician’s, Sophie hovers in the doorway but doesn’t enter. As soon as Georges’s car has gone, she ducks into a nearby drugstore and picks up a pair of cheap, tinted glasses. It becomes clear to us, but not the family, that Sophie is illiterate. For the housekeeper, such straightforward tasks as reading shopping lists or dashed off notes from her employers are traumatic experiences. She looks as if she could implode with frustration.

When Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the district’s brassy postal clerk, befriends Sophie, it’s a match made in heaven. Jeanne drives Sophie around in her car. Sophie invites Jeanne to her upstairs room to watch TV. But their growing friendship is bitterly opposed by Georges, who’s convinced that the postal clerk reads his mail.

Sophie and the family are headed for an inevitable confrontation which—in the quasi-Marxist lens of the movie -- is personal, sexual and class-related. Jeanne, whose relationship with Sophie is loaded with lesbian implications, has a virulent distaste for the hypocrisies of the higher classes. She may have a shady past, but she knows an incriminating thing or two about everyone, including Georges and Catherine.

Chabrol and cowriter Caroline Eliacheff, who adapted Ruth Rendell’s novel, "A Judgment in Stone," force us to share this angry, underclass view. When the two female friends go door-to-door for old clothes for the local church, they’re given nothing but threadbare garments by the smugly pious locals. Georges is a stuffy individual who dresses in black tie just to watch Don Giovanni on television. And Catherine, who appears to be conducting extramarital affairs in her gallery, smokes profusely in front of her two children yet forbids her teenage son to smoke.

Chabrol, director of more than 40 films and an Alfred Hitchcock disciple, has created another frigid masterpiece. "La Ceremonie" builds towards a stunning, jarring conclusion that puts everything you have seen in a chilly new perspective. As the movers and shakers of this peculiar saga, Bonnaire and Huppert are unnerving and fascinating to watch together. Bonnaire’s Sophie is a frosty automaton and, as Jeanne, Huppert is a hot-blooded hellion. Together they create an alliance that stays uncomfortably with us long after the movie.

LA CEREMONIE (Unrated) — Contains intense, macabre material. In French with subtitles.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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