2 September 1996

A Judgement in Stone (La Ceremonie) (1995)

Dir: Claude Chabrol

Refreshingly unsentimental

Now that it's 'eyes right' down in Canberra, those in the ruling class planning on whooping it up would be well advised to first take a sobering look at this truly subversive psychological thriller from veteran French director Claude Chabrol.

You simply can't get good help these days. Just ask the Lelievre family, a self-satisfied bourgeois nuclear unit who live in high-cultured good taste on their comfortable Brittany estate. The new housekeeper of their model home is the stoic Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire). A loner fond only of chocolate and tabloid TV, the near mute Sophie serves her new masters with skill but dispassion, fearing they will soon discover she is illiterate and sack her, as other employers have.

Madame Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) thinks she's "a bit odd but a real pearl", but when Sophie forms a liberating bond with town rebel and local postie, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), she raises the suspicion of the Master of the House (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who believes Jeanne is secretly opening his mail. From here the narrative pivots around a series of increasingly odious revelations, unsettlingly delivered by Chabrol with an almost transparent touch. Suffice to say that the class war is alive and well, as those who are denied by life's lottery seek 'judgement' on those born to hold the winning tickets.

Chabrol, a former film critic who along with Godard and Truffaut was in the vanguard of the French New Wave in the late fifties, based his script on a 1963 Ruth Rendell novel (way before Inspector Wexford found fame). He weaves a quiet, austere tale which steadily builds its ironies and suspense to an unexpected climax, aided and abetted by some on-the-money acting. Bonnaire's surgical portrait of the sullen Sophie deservedly earned a Best Actress award at the French Oscars. As Jeanne, Huppert lays a rich psychological complexity beneath the character's sunny surface. Both realise dark yet unnervingly sympathetic portraits of feminist defiance and class solidarity.

Refreshingly unsentimental, A Judgement in Stone leaves its mark well beyond the cinema with a lingering sense that uncomfortable truths have been uncovered without fear of the consequences. Rich bastards will leave the cinema shaken. The rest of us will merely be stirred... perhaps into action. Only, a word of warning: don't try this at home.

Beat Magazine, Sydney. September, 1996

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