May 27, 2010

24FPS Top 100 Films

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90: LA CEREMONIE [1995]
DIR: Claude Chabrol
I’ve often said that it is a shame that the great French director Claude Chabrol is so frequently seen as little more than a Hitchcock homage artist. That’s true, but it has to be said that this film - for me the best of what little I’ve seen of his 56 year, 60 plus title, filmography - is one of his most Hitchcockian.

Based on Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone, La Ceremonie casts Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, a rather withdrawn young woman who goes to work as a domestic for the rich Lelievre family (including Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Virginie Ledoyen). After a little while Sophie befriends local postmistress Jeanne (Huppert), who seems to have a feud with the Lelievres, and may be opening their mail. Over the course of the film there’s a slow build of the bond between Sophie and Jeanne, and a growing sense that both women are hiding dark secrets.

Chabrol is a past master of the slow burn thriller and, though little of any real consequence actually happens for most La Ceremonie’s 108 minutes he, along with Bonnaire and Huppert, creates an atmosphere of growing tension. That atmosphere is all the stronger because you’re never quite sure how the growing resentment between Sophie and the Lelievres, and the ever more brittle behaviour that Sophie exhibits as she gets closer to Jeanne, will play itself out.

In the hands of lesser talents this would be a boring film, but Chabrol has a firm grip on the film and his leads happen to be two of the most gifted actresses in France. Neither Bonnaire nor Huppert does anything flashy, they simply become these women. Huppert is often a cold presence in films, but she’s outstanding as the initially bubbly Jeanne, but convincingly becomes more and more evidently unstable with each passing scene, it’s a masterful piece of acting, demonstrating exactly why she’s seen as one of the best actresses of her generation. That said, in this case Sandrine Bonnaire is perhaps especially outstanding; her every utterance simmering with barely repressed feelings and her icy countenance, especially her eyes, speaking volumes without the aid of dialogue. In the final shot her passivity, the emptiness behind those eyes, is chilling.

It’s very difficult to discuss La Ceremonie without divulging a couple of important plot points, and so I’m just going to draw things to a close here by saying that you’d be hard pressed to find a better entry point into the outstanding work of Claude Chabrol than this tense, brilliantly constructed, and sometimes shocking film.
“I know something about you”
The secrets in Sophie and Jeanne’s pasts are revealed. Exceptional work here from both Bonnaire and Huppert.

Don Giovanni
After the slow build this is a shocking pay off.

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