La Cérémonie Movie Review

Tireless French director Claude Chabrol returns to top form with the existential mind-scrambler La Cérémonie, a creepy and disturbing movie that gets under your skin from the very beginning. We know something bad is going to happen -- we just don't know what.

Sandrine Bonnaire (so memorable in East/West) plays a simple maid named Sophie -- so simple in fact that she doesn't know how to read. Hired on by an affluent family living in a large estate in a small town in the north of France, she proves herself an impeccable housekeeper. But when the man of the house calls home for her to fetch files off her desk or the matriarch hands her the shopping list, she invents excuses as to why they can't be done, all in an effort to hide her illiteracy.

Strange then that she strikes up a friendship with the local post office clerk named Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who at first seems eccentric and later is revealed to be more than a little unbalanced. Jeanne has a long-running spat with just about everyone in town, especially the wealthy family for whom Sophie works, and it isn't long before she's encouraging outright sedition.

How will it end? Maybe not the way you expect, and the coda is certain to leave you cold and confused. In a way, this is the charm of La Cérémonie, so unique because it's so disarming and filled with hopelessness -- not just about Sophie, but about Jeanne and the family, too. As the bourgeois family sits around and listens to classical music, they have no idea that they're on the brink of destruction. It's a somber message to all the well-off of the world: Live your precious little lives. Disaster is just one room over. It's enough to give a trust fund baby the shakes.

Chabrol's film is filled with excellent music, expert cinematography, and a strangely linear pacing that shoves us through the motions of the plot. Its lack of complexity keeps it a bit short of becoming a classic, must-see film, but on the whole it's one of Chabrol's greatest achievements of the 1990s.

Based on the book A Judgment in Stone.

DVD includes a making-of documentary about the film, plus the original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.


La Cérémonie Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1995


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