‘La cérémonie’ – Claude Chabrol’s crisp psychological thriller on Criterion Channel

The critical reputation of Claude Chabrol, one of the founding brothers of the nouvelle vague and the director whose adoration of Alfred Hitchcock led to a career specializing in thrillers and psychological dramas, has risen and fallen through the decades.

La cérémonie (France, 1995), his adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, revived both his critical reputation and his commercial clout. Part social drama, part psychological thriller, the crisp, character-rich thriller is one of the finest films of his career.

Sandrine Bonnaire is creepily impassive as the neurotically silent maid Sophie, who rebuffs the kindnesses of the offhandedly condescending upper-class French family she works for. Illiterate and defensive, she lives a lonely, solitary existence until she meets the town’s gleefully misanthropic postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), an insolent gossip with a vendetta against the family.

For all of Jeanne’s manipulations of Sophie, a genuine friendship is born. They huddle and giggle together like conspiratorial schoolgirls as Jeanne slowly draws Sophie into her power games. And as Jeanne’s anger takes root in Sophie, the two push mischievous acts of rebellion in the class struggle into a psychotic explosion of hatred.

Chabrol charts it all with his trademark God’s-eye remove, observing without sensationalizing the brutality, and an empathy that gives the tragedy its emotionally shattering power.

Jacqueline Bisset, Jean Pierre Cassel, and young Virginie Ledoyen co-star as the oblivious but well-meaning family.

It won the award for best foreign language film from the National Society of Film Critics.

Not rated, in French with English subtitles

Streams on Criterion Channel

Also DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
La cérémonie [DVD]

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The DVD release from Home Vision (currently out of print) features a 20-minute French language documentary and an insert with an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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