France (1995) Dir. Claude Chabrol
Affluent art gallery owner Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) hires the quiet but highly efficient Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire) as a maid for their luxurious country mansion in Brittany. Keeping her dyslexia to herself prevents Sophie from bonding with the family – father Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his daughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) and Catherine’s son Gilles (Valentin Merlet) – but she does make friends with spirited postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who happens to have a vendetta against the Lelievres, and encourages Sophie to rebel against her employers.
The legendary French auteur Claude Chabrol tackles one of his favourite subjects of class distinction with this adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone, his cynical eye and keen sense of ambiguity in full effect. True to form, Chabrol presents us with a tale that has no clear cut protagonist – or if there is it is up to the audience to decide who it may be. While not laid on too thickly the lines between the two parties are very clearly drawn and what we see play out is essentially a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.
Sophie appears to have a dark past involving the death of her invalid father while she remains forever embarrassed about her illiteracy, revealing it to no-one and using her guile to avoid reading and to cover it up. The Lelievres are a pseudo close knit family with mother and son, father and daughter naturally sticking close to each other and while they don’t overtly exclude Sophie, they don’t exactly try too hard to include Sophie in their inner circle – not that she makes any effort with them either. She prefers to watch TV in her own time, sitting on the floor at the end of her bed.
The wayward Jeanne is both a breath of fresh air and toxic cloud to the Lelievre household, bringing Sophie out of her shell while greatly upsetting Georges in the process. Quite what the issue is between them remains unknown but it presumably plays a part in Jeanne’s hatred of the wealthy. In an interesting contrast Jeanne seems to hold high ideas of worth within her class status, taking umbrage at the pitiful items a poor catholic couple donate to the church, slinging most of it out as rubbish. This plays out in a naughty but humorously liberating way for Jeanne and Sophie and cements their friendship, paving the way for the irreverent and rather shocking finale.
The film shifts tones between stoic seriousness to light hearted frivolity to reflect the differences in how the two parties treat Sophie. Admittedly Sophie doesn’t make it easy for the family to ingratiate themselves with her, taking every gesture like the TV and reading glasses as a patronising insult. It is not even clear what attracts Jeanne to her, but perhaps Jeanne’s idea that Sophie is nothing more than a slave to the Lelievres begins to sink in as truth. Of the family, daughter Melinda is the connecting bond being the only one to establish a rapport until she figures out Sophie’s secret at the same time Sophie discovers one of Melinda’s.
Chabrol handles both moods with the care they deserve allowing the two to blend effortlessly and not confuse the viewer into thinking they are watching two different films. Always present is the mise-en-scene which draws the audience deep into the thick of the events so they can observe and decide without being lead by the director, who keeps things nicely in check throughout, subtly building layers of drama and tension.
Always with a keen eye for the right talent, Chabrol has picked himself a superb cast to bring this story alive with British born Jacqueline Bisset surprising us with her fluency in French, carrying off the requisite chic of the French upper classes with relative ease for an established glamour puss. Sandrine Bonnaire puts herself up as a blank board and lets Chabrol draw a rough outline of Sophie, which Bonnaire then fills in the details as the film goes along, creating a fascinating character in the process. And naturally Isabelle Huppert shines as the fun, flighty, gregarious but silently sinister Jeanne, a role she seems to be enjoying perhaps a little too much.
Chabrol is the master of the deep and ambiguous human drama with a chilling twist and La cérémonie sits quite happily alongside his most celebrated films. It’s probably best to enter into this film without knowing the plot for maximum effect of how it plays out, working just as well on a straightforward level as it does for those who like to delve a little deeper into their cinema. A well crafted, deceptively deep and hugely potent film.