"La Ceremonie" is vintage Claude Chabrol: elegant, brisk and lethal in its assault on the obliviousness of the haute bourgeoise. The self-absorbed, often hypocritical upper-middle class has been a favorite Chabrol target for going on 40 years. But his droll, darkly humorous thrillers seem ever richer in their characterizations--and, in this instance, in the never-stronger sense that time really is running out for the privileged amid a widening gap between the haves and have-nots.
Yet in this adaptation of a novel by Ruth Rendell, Chabrol's bourgeoise has also never been so discreetly charming. Jacqueline Bisset's Catherine Lelievre is a stylish, well-mannered beauty who lives with her debonair businessman husband, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), in a large, isolated country estate. They both have children from previous relationships: Catherine, a son (Valentin Merlet), and Georges, a daughter (Virginie Ledoyen).
The Lelievres are very likable people, at ease with their privileged, terrifically tasteful existence. Catherine is especially warm and winning. She's self-possessed and unpretentious, yet that extra effort she devotes to making sure her husband is pleased with the way she runs the large household suggests that she may feel that she married above her station and must express, perhaps unconsciously, constant gratitude.
Chabrol is such a subtle filmmaker that this may be reading too much into Catherine's character, but in any event she is awfully glad to land Sandrine Bonnaire's Sophie as her new housekeeper. Sophie is a dour young woman, a bit brusque but surpassingly efficient and capable, a real self-starter. But when Sophie crosses paths with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a post office employee in a nearby village, a disgruntled busybody, they form a bond with consequences neither could predict at the outset. Sophie grows less pleasant to deal with, but Catherine doesn't want to rock the boat: How could she ever replace such a gem?
Since "La Ceremonie" is one of those pictures you have to be careful about not giving too much away, let's just say that it's no wonder Huppert and Bonnaire shared the best actress prize at Venice last year, creating women the Lelievres have not an inkling about what makes them tick--and ticked off.
Too long away from the big screen, in the United States at least, Bisset is a radiant and easily commanding presence, as always. And Cassel, a New Wave pioneer like Chabrol, is as perceptive and effortless an actor as ever. Ledoyen and Merlet blend in effectively with this quartet of seasoned screen actors. Clearly the work of a major screen artist in all its aspects, "La Ceremonie," which has an evocative score by Chabrol's son Mathieu, is sleek--and shocking. It was named best foreign film of 1996 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some strong language and graphic violence.
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Sandrine Bonnaire: Sophie
Isabelle Huppert: Jeanne
Jacqueline Bisset: Catherine
Jean-Pierre Cassel: Georges
A New Yorker Films 7 release of a co-production with MK2 Productions S.A., France 3 Cinema, Prokino Filmproduktion GMBH, OLGA Film, Z.D.F. Director Claude Chabrol. Producer Marin Karmitz. Screenplay by Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman. Editor Monique Fardoulis. Costumes Corinne Jorry. Music Mathieu Chabrol. Set decorator Daniel Mercier. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
* At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.