The FilmBack in the seventies, the late Claude Chabrol informed Roger Ebert that he was a "communist". Looking back over his career of exposing the male psyche and the workings of the bourgeoisie, it's easy to rebut his words by noticing his very formal and conservative technique, his affectionate satire of the well to do, and a detached artistry that suggests that the film-maker was no angry member of the workers' revolution. Indeed, a thoroughly disenchanted film like Nada (1974) would suggest that, at best, Chabrol's red credentials were already being neglected only three years after he had nailed his colours to this particular mast.However one of the joys of the director's career was the sudden surprise and the peculiar choice, and his taste for a good shock is at its most potent in this adaptation of Ruth Rendell's excellent A Judgement in Stone. Rather than maintain his usual distance from all of its characters, Chabrol almost embraces his murderesses as they respond to those with more power with an impish charm that builds to a near-righteous coup de grace. Here Isabelle Huppert's gauche postmistress and the awkward Sandrine Bonnaire unite and then overthrow their ruling class with close to the director's own blessing.
Freely adapted from the Rendell novel and moved to the French countryside, La Ceremonie freely displays the director's own love of Hitchcockian "doubling". Scenes regularly are repeated or flipped into contrast to explore the small repressed worlds of Bonnaire and Huppert and contrast them with the entitled, pleased with themselves, existences of the Lelievre family for whom Bonnaire's Sophie works as their maid. For example, no sooner do we learn Huppert has nothing to eat than we join the end of a sumptuous Lelievre feast with plenty left, if they ever chose to share it.It is Bonnaire's mouse-like Sophie Bonhomme upon whom the tale rests. She is often discussed by her employers within earshot, and at best she is their social project, with the offer of driving lessons, or the supposedly grateful recipient of charity through their hand-me-downs. When she develops a life and a friendship, they resent her free time and independence, and her secret disability becomes the crux upon which the story turns from drama of manners to outright revolt.
The elegance of the film's structure, the placement of pointers to future events within the composition, and the remarkable turns of the leading women are all delicious. Huppert is delightfully common and cheerily obnoxious, full of spite at her lot in life and envious of those who have it better, and Bonnaire is eerily restrained, until her true self outs through the coaxing of her friend. The Lelievre family are intentionally far less entertaining or likable, and this is due to Cassel's pompousness and the superficial sympathies of Bisset and Ledoyen, all beautifully played.Whilst the development of the story delivers on the shock and the revolution I mention above, Chabrol can't resist a final twist which flips everything once more. Intriguing to its final titles, and every inch as great a film as the director made, La Ceremonie is potent, subtle cinema.