This icy suspense film by Claude Chabrol slowly builds to a violent and unnerving end. La Ceremonie takes its name from the rituals leading to the walk to the guillotine, with that inevitable and bloody climax.
Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is hired by Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) to be the live-in maid at the Lelievre home. The Lelievre family is wealthy and live in a large, somewhat isolated home on the outskirts of St. Coulombe, a village several miles from the largest town. The father, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), is a middle-aged businessman. He enjoys opera. He hunts and keeps two shotguns in the house. Catherine, elegant and busy, manages an art gallery. Their teen-aged son and daughter are smart and well mannered. Georges' daughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) by his first marriage is in college but often visits. They are an upper-class family who, while friendly, take servants as a matter of course. At the 20th birthday party for Melinda, one guest offers a quote that at first seems just a little off. "There are aspects of good people I find loathsome, least of all the evil within them."
Sophie is disturbingly passive. She does a good job, but says little, watches the television in her room, walks to the village. We learn she is illiterate. She meets Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the postal clerk for the village. Jeanne is friendly enough with others, but with a tightening of her mouth she can instantly turn from curious to dissatisfied. Her gestures are quick, abrupt. When she spears a mushroom, her fork strikes the plate, over and over. She carries her resentments like treasures, and shares them with Sophie. We learn each has a history of...if not tragedy, certainly of unpleasantness. Sophie's infirm father whom she'd been caring for died in a fire, and so did 15 others. Jeanne's four-year-old daughter died, kicked and burned. "I heard you killed your daughter," Sophie says to Jeanne. "It's not true," Jeanne says. "It was her own fault. Anyway, they couldn't prove it...How could a mother kill her own child? Even if it wasn't normal?"
And did you set the fire that killed your father, Jeanne asks. They look at each, then break into giggles. They fall on Jeanne's bed tickling each other.
The Lelievres disapprove of Jeanne. They tell Sophie she can't have Jeanne in the house. Sophie begins to show some of Jeanne's resentments. Finally Georges Lelievre tells Sophie she must go. Jeanne says Sophie must stay with her. Jeanne's resentments explode. "They're pathetic," she tells Sophie. "What do they know? They've got it all. Their biggest worry is what color car to buy. Or which cousin stole half the inheritance. I'd be happy with a tenth of what they have. I'd have the life I wanted instead of the opposite. They won't get away with it." That night Georges and Catherine, with Melinda and their son, settle down in front of the television to watch Mozart's Don Giovanni. Jeanne and Sophie drive to the house with the intention of getting Sophie's things. Jeanne is an instigator, impetuous and quick. Sophie is a follower, passive and somehow unconnected. But perhaps not always. Together they make a combination of madness that leads to a bloody and unsettling conclusion.
This is a movie that takes its time and is all the better for it. We don't really realize when our feelings are moving from sympathy to unease with Sophie and from alertness to dislike with Jeanne. But halfway into the movie you know things are going to happen that you may not predict and that you probably won't like. Huppert and Bonnaire play to their strengths. As you see the disturbing elements of the plot evolve, you know its because the two characters' personalities are bringing out the worst in each other. The two actresses do marvelous jobs.
The DVD looks just fine. There is a 20 minute documentary about the movie with Chabrol, Huppert and Bonnaire.