'Ceremonie' dark, intense and fabulous

February 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Vive la France! Vive le Chabrol! And just in time for today's ceremonies: a Valentine from hell!

In an age when most American movies feel bloated, undisciplined and downright amateur (op. cit. "Absolute Power"), along comes that crafty old pro Claude Chabrol with a film of icy precision and clammy intensity. Here's one that won't leave you hungry to see a movie again in two hours.

"La Ceremonie," which opens today at the Charles, is a mesmerizing, almost clinical examination of the destruction of a family by two dysfunctional scumbags who happen to be not white trash roamers like Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith, but beautiful women -- Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire.

A chilly scene in winter, the film chronicles the almost chess-like series of moves by which these two -- an illiterate housemaid and marginalized town postal clerk -- bond, play on each other's pathologies and class resentments, and goose each other toward atrocity.

The Lelievres (Jaqueline Bissett, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ldeoyen and Valentin Merlet) are prosperous, trusting, trivial, casually cruel and rather silly, like many wealthy families. It's a remarriage deal: His first wife committed suicide, her first husband left her. They marry, each bring an attractive teen child to the comfortable estate they inhabit in Brittany. They're not evil, just indifferent; they just sail along, oblivious and secure in their sense of being at the center of the universe.

When Mme. Lelievre hires Sophie (Bonnaire) as housekeeper and cook, she is delighted to get a brilliant chef and a hard-working custodian: What she's never bargained on is Sophie's illiteracy, which has turned her both cunning and bitter, and Sophie's hidden, ugly background.

Sophie soon makes one friend in town, the somewhat dotty postmistress Jeanne, a virile woman who has gotten off on a child-abuse murder and now seethes with her own brand of class anger and violence. This is Huppert, usually a glamorous icon, at her most charismatically grubby. The two women have great rapport and soon are sharing giggling secrets and feeling a powerful, if unacted upon, sexual attraction. Perhaps alone they would have remained inert; united, they gull each other toward violence.

It's amazing how much suspense Chabrol can generate from brittle conversation, sullen looks, a little night music and whispers in the closet.

This film really grips and it doesn't let you go until a last, terrific twist.

'La Ceremonie'

Starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Released by New Yorker

Unrated

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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