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Going Postal

Isabelle Huppert & Sandrine Bonnaire
Service With a Sneer: Isabelle Huppert (left) and Sandrine Bonnaire know how to dish it out in Claude Chabrol's class-war thriller.

Every maid has her day in 'La Cérémonie'

By Richard von Busack

French director Claude Chabrol tries to chill you instead of electrocute you. In these all-too-shocking times, you can retreat to a Chabrol movie and see your worst suspicions about the human race acted out in relative peace and quiet. His newest entertainment, La Cérémonie, is summed up by a Nietzsche quote--some words to the effect that people's hidden dark sides aren't as awful as the sides they show to the rest of the world. The obviously doomed members of the Lelièvre family are good people, examples of the kind of bourgeois liberals who, when they hear the word "revolver," reach for their culture. They don't deserve what happens to them; it's just that they're just so kindly and out of touch that they don't recognize the Angel of Death roosting in their own servant's quarters.

In the first scene, the good-natured housewife Mrs. Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bisset) interviews Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), who is applying for a position as maid to the Lelièvre menage (affluent, aging husband; well-adjusted son from the first marriage; bright daughter who is almost 20). Sophie is cold as a cyborg. It's as if she hasn't learned yet that people prefer it if you smile. But her iciness doesn't trigger any alarm, and in this remote part of Brittany, servants are hard to come by.

Sophie has a few secrets, all right. To begin with, she's illiterate--and in a desperate, fearful state that this secret will be discovered. Since she can't read and has no contact with the outside world besides her employers, the one bright spot in her life is television, which she adores. Sophie eventually finds a new friend: the pushy, snoopy, half-crazed postmistress of the town, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who bears a grudge against the world and imposes herself on Sophie.

It's a possibly sexual attraction--though what really thrills them is watching TV. The tension builds up waiting for these two disaffected souls to do their worst, but the movie doesn't scream at you about TV being the culprit, a la Natural Born Killers. (The satellite-fed TV in the Lelièvre house doesn't broadcast violent programs, as if indicting us all. Instead, the Lelièvres all line up on the couch in opera clothes--like a PBS version of the Simpsons--to watch a broadcast of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni).

La Cérémonie plays on what the late James Dickey claimed he captured in the famous scene in Deliverance in which a city slicker is made to squeal like a pig by some vicious backwoodsman. Dickey said that his story was so powerful because it was about what he called "the great fear of the century," the fear of being hurt by strangers who don't care whether you live or die. Chabrol's film is powered by that fear. But it's a much less an Old Testament-style film about killers than we're used to. Chabrol proposes, he doesn't lecture; and he doesn't ram home the violence or underscore the social responsibility we all have for the killings. The victims drop as if they were children playing dead, and a twist ending lies waiting to impale the culprits. Watching La Cérémonie is a refreshment; Chabrol's direction makes you feel that you've spent some time in bracingly good company.

La Cérémonie (R; 120 min.), directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, based on the novel by Ruth Rendell, photographed by Bernard Zitzermann and starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert.

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