Claude Chabrol makes his particular kind of unnerving, deliciously amoral thrillers look easy. Once you've made as many of them as he has, they probably are.
"The Bridesmaid" is the 76-year-old French director's 54th feature (no, that is not a misprint) and, like many of the others, it uses the extraordinary craft Chabrol has acquired over the decades to insinuate itself inside our psyches in unexpected and potent ways. Based on a novel by Britain's Ruth Rendell, "The Bridesmaid's" unsettling story of love and obsession has been moved to the familiar Chabrol territory of the French middle class, a group that both fascinates and horrifies the director.
It is one of Chabrol's abilities (working here with co-screenwriter Pierre Leccia) to deal with the mysteries of the mundane, with what lurks beneath the mask of the seemingly ordinary. His is a petit bourgeois world where the normal feels stranger than we're comfortable with and the strange is more upsetting still.
For it's never been the criminal aspect of thrillers that interests Chabrol but rather the chance the genre gives him to explore human psychology, especially in its more aberrant aspects. Everything certainly starts out cozy as can be with the family that's at the heart of "The Bridesmaid." In fact, mother Christine (Aurore Clément) and grown children Philippe (Benoît Magimel), Sophie (Solène Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea) all live together and are introduced going out to dinner with Christine's new beau, Gérard (Bernard Le Coq). But because the especially well-cast Magimel (seen opposite Isabelle Hupert in "The Piano Teacher") is wound more than usually tight, there is a hint of perhaps too much attachment between mother and son. More than that, it's hard not to notice that Philippe, who seems disinterested in his workaday job with a bathroom remodeling firm, has developed an unusual attachment to a particular garden ornament, a stone head of the goddess Flora that's been in the family for years.
At sister Sophie's wedding, Philippe takes a haphazard interest in the groom's cousin Senta (Laura Smet), a bridesmaid his sisters think is aloof and disconnected. Where Philippe is concerned, however, she is anything but.
Following him home after the ceremony, Senta declares flatly, "You're the one I was waiting for, you're my destiny." When she takes Philippe home to her strange apartment in the basement of a dilapidated house, she says, "Welcome to my realm, my love." Not surprisingly for someone so dramatic, Senta says she's an actress. More than that, she's a fabulist, a free-spirited teller of tales who pulls the rug out from under both Philippe and the movie.
For though "The Bridesmaid" has initially teased us into thinking that Philippe was the strange one we had to watch out for, he is normalcy itself compared to a major league obsessive like Senta. Impeccably played by Smet, the unnerving Senta, in Chabrol's words, has the ability to "skew reality. That's the founding principle of witchcraft." In the blink of an eye, she has drawn Philippe into a vortex of her own creation, a vortex so strong it pulls the audience into it and so fast it makes the head spin.
One fascinating thing about the mutual obsessions of Senta and Philippe is how hard it is to tell them apart from the classic tropes of falling in love.
What is more seductive, more flattering, than for an attractive person of the opposite sex to tell us, "I'll do anything for you, you are my whole life"? When a fantasy figure expresses undying carnal love, do we listen if a small voice says something is not quite right? Is this storybook love or might something else be going on? In the world of Claude Chabrol, it is often impossible to say for sure.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A First Run Features release. Director Claude Chabrol. Producers Antonio Passalia, Patrick Godeau, Alfred Hurmer. Screenplay Pierre Leccia and Claude Chabrol, based on the novel by Ruth Rendell. Director of photography Eduardo Serra. Editor Monique Fardoulis. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.