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No society has more destructive class problems than one that claims to have no class divisions. So it’s no wonder that La Cérémonie is attracting near-mainstream attention for Claude Chabrol. Wanly referred to, if referred to at all, as “the French Hitchcock” or “co-founder of the new wave,” Chabrol has stagnated in the memory of even devoted cinéastes. But if the seamless elegance of his latest psychological puzzle isn’t enough to revive his reputation, then its neat and horrifying story, tailor-made for American class fears and resentments, will.

The Lelièvres are desperate to find a maid who’ll look after their big, gleaming country house with a minimum of incompetence. Hushed, panicked asides between husband and wife Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) hint at an unsavory history between the family and its domestic help—dropped dishes seem to have been the least of their problems.

In order to take the Lelièvres seriously, the audience must sympathize with their plight: Good help is hard to find. They are a cultured family, educated and articulate; they delight in good music, good books, wordplay, and affectionate teasing. They are too intelligent to be unaware of the implications of their economic status and its attendant perks, even requirements—they need a servant, are entitled to one, and at the same time are ashamed of occupying the superior position of that relationship.

Even the relationships among themselves are sophisticated and full of modern nonchalance—Catherine’s teenage son Gilles (Valentin Merlet) lives at home, while Georges’ daughter from his previous marriage, Mélinda (Virginie Ledoyen), drops in from college as often as she can. It’s all very civilized. Catherine can’t believe her luck when she meets Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), a chilly, polite blonde whose supreme composure seems to highlight Catherine’s own guilt and tension, putting employer emotionally in hock to employee from their first meeting. Sophie can cook, is not afraid of hard work, and answers “I don’t know” to Catherine’s hunted, chatterbox questions, like whether country living would suit her. She might be a very honest young woman; she might be what is technically called a sociopath. Either way, guilt, exasperation, and a little snobbery (Sophie calls Catherine “Madame”) sway the balance in Sophie’s favor, and she moves into the attic room.

The original version of this story, Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgment in Stone, kicks off with the ending and lays out the class divisions with a slap, like Tarot cards auguring exactly the climax we have been promised. But the England of 1975 is not the France of 1996, where old money confers status but can’t buy privilege, and the new breed of aristocrats are those with enough cash to buy aristocratic pleasures. The Lelièvres are aristos of the liquid-assets sort; whatever Georges does—many such details are left unclear, as if everyone’s world is a nether world whatever his standing—he’s raking it in. Neither of the kids has ever been less than comfortable, but their guilt is slightly more heightened than that of their parents, as each succeeding generation comes to believe, or wishes to believe, in the fallacy of a truly democratic society.

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Mélinda automatically labels Daddy a “fascist” and asks if they can at least call the maid a “domestic servant.” Gilles idly asks if she’s good-looking. When his step-sister razzes him, Georges comes to his rescue. “He likes pretty things,” he proclaims, seated in front of the brand-new top-of-the-line TV set and surrounded by silk wallpaper and fresh flowers. They all like pretty things; they are pretty things—well-preserved Catherine, still with her model’s figure, and stunning, soignée Mélinda, not old enough to be self-conscious snuggling with her father on the horsehair sofa.

There is something grotesque about the family members’ insularity. Their warmth looks like complacency, their education like intellectual smugness. Their Gallic love for the arts and the touching femininity of the son’s taste—”pretty things,” and Mozart when it suits his mood—can be insufferable if looked at a certain way.

If the family members tear their hair out over the presence of Sophie, she does not appear to worry much about them. Left alone in her room for the first time, she punches a number of buttons on the little TV set (the family’s old one), with increasing frustration, and when it finally comes on she sinks down in front of it agape. Chabrol’s direction is perfectly controlled; Sophie’s little kinks and lurid bits of business are meant to pass unnoticed, or to refer to something else—what magicians call “misdirection.” At her interview, she leaps from her seat to point at the address and phone number on a reference she has brought. She serves the family with clammy decorousness, then is seen in the kitchen plucking ravenously at the chicken’s carcass and sucking her fingers. The first time she shows any emotion, it is despair, brought about by a breezy note left by Catherine asking Sophie to iron her white suit.

What’s going on here might have continued in this way, with increasing frustration on both sides—Sophie’s oddness becoming more apparent to her employers, and their cushiony self-absorption driving her deeper into icy aloofness. But in the nearby town is a postmistress who is even odder than Sophie. Played to perfection by Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne is one of those irritating women whose colossal rage comes out in inappropriate bursts that implicate everyone around her; most of the time, she affects a girlish impishness that is equally annoying. A nonstop chatterer, friendly, greedy, conspiratorial, and furious, she chats up the malleable Sophie.

At first Jeanne just wants some dirt on the family, but closemouthed Sophie is loath to supply it, so Jeanne just spreads more of the half-truths and outright false accusations she has trumped up to account for her hatred of the bourgeoisie in general and the Lelièvres in particular. Her hair plaited into puny, bizarre pigtails, wearing boots and short skirts years too young for her, Jeanne is a figure of fascination to Sophie. The younger woman listens with seeming amusement to her new friend’s insistence that her employers are rich pigs intent on exploiting and destroying their maid, but as unpleasantnesses at the big house begin piling up—most of which are misunderstandings by both the guilt-ridden and the resentful, uneducated parties—Jeanne’s poisonous loose talk makes sense. Sophie blossoms, in her stunted way, around Jeanne, and the two of them share wild mushrooms and secrets that not only create a bond, but a chemistry that promises violence.

It is not pretty to watch Bonnaire’s Sophie come out of her shell—she imitates her new friend’s absurd hairstyle, and her face becomes craggy and drawn; her small outbursts are no longer private but are markedly lurid. “I know something about you,” she tells Jeanne over lunch. “You killed your daughter.” Typically, Jeanne blusters and ooh-la-las in response—she is going mad, a process Sophie can’t or won’t recognize. Normal human responses are beyond Jeanne, as soon will be normal human behavior.

La Cérémonie is less about the rebellion of the underclass than about the inevitable self-destruction of the bourgeoisie—chipper, paternalistic, uncomfortable with the concept of social superiority and its implied inverse, but expecting its way smoothed as if by invisible hands. Sophie finally makes herself very visible, and it all seems inexorable, the only way to balance the strange moral scale that tips now toward the family, then the maid, then the wild-card postmistress. Everyone gets punished, if not for what they did, then for who they are.

That is not to say Chabrol’s world is a righteous one, in spite of his vengeful Catholicism. His tone is stylish, controlled, and detached; everyone in this underpopulated movie shows an equally monstrous face, although they are all sympathetic in their way. He keeps the locations to a minimum—the house exterior, the house interior, Jeanne’s shop and the town, Sophie’s dark, unadorned room—so that insularity shades into claustrophobia and back again. When Jeanne and Sophie feel “liberated” by their friendship and the awful secrets they share, the demonstration of this liberation is grotesque: The two pigtailed women sit on the floor in the attic, their arms over each other’s shoulders, the television light making their smiling faces corpselike.

It is finally the Lelièvres’ paternalistic hand-wringing that brings about doom. They assume that everyone’s thought processes unfold from the same bases of guilt, entitlement, and ambivalence as theirs. So worried about how the new maid feels about them, they never stop to wonder what she’s thinking. CP