Nearly all of the directors of the French New Wave idolized Hitchcock. Eric Rohmer wrote a number of books on the director, and Francois Truffaut, on top of writing perhaps the definitive Hitch book, made The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), two direct homages to the master of suspense. However, no director of his generation paid deference to Alfred Hitchcock more frequently than Claude Chabrol, who seemed to spend his career trying to perfect the idea of a French Hitchcock film. Chabrol was particularly interested in Hitch’s frequent device of the innocent-seeming house guest or neighbor who has a terrible secret or history. Movies like Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and certainly Shadow of a Doubt (1943) inform Chabrol’s best Hitchcockian movies like Le Boucher (1970) and La Cérémonie (1995), the latter of which may outpace even Shadow of a Doubt in terms of icy ruthlessness.
The story in La Cérémonie is based on a novel called A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendall and tells the story of Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) who is hired by the Lelièvre family to be their maid. She does an excellent job cleaning the stately Brittany home, but the family, headed by Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) and George (Jean-Pierre Cassel), notices slightly odd things about her. She doesn’t drive or use the dishwasher, blaming both on her bad eyes, yet she refuses to get glasses, she struggles with making change, and she is addicted to the family’s second television. “We’re going to turn her into a zombie with that TV,” says Gilles (Valentin Merlet), Catherine’s son from a previous marriage. He may have the cart and the horse in the wrong positions. Sophie develops a friendship with the local postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a bizarre, unbalanced woman who holds deep jealousies and resentments, mainly toward people like the Lelièvres. Eventually, the family finds out about Sophie’s illiteracy and more disturbingly the uncertain role she played in a fire that killed many people, and they dismiss her. Later, she returns to the house with Jeanne and they murder the family.
Chabrol, like his idol Hitchcock, is deft at convincing us we’re in for one type of story then hitting us with an all together different one without making the narrative seem forced or wrong. Everything that happens in La Cérémonie seems inevitable, even if it’s unexpected (in fact, the ceremony of the title refers to the term used during the Revolution by executioners for the period right before a person is to be guillotined, and the movie has the feeling of a slow march to an unavoidable end). Chabrol is also expert at visual cues, introducing images and then paying them off. Guns are easy to this end and Chabrol does them right. He also reveals the appropriate amount of information at the right time, putting us in the heads of the Lelièvres, putting the pieces together of Sophie’s illiteracy. Hitchcock might have been his guide, but Chabrol engages a lot in what Billy Wilder called, “Two plus two filmmaking,” giving the audience just enough information to form the correct conclusions. It’s not about surprising the viewer but about leading him.
Chabrol is also pointed in his attack of television, which he paints as a machine for the dulling of the senses. The Lelièvres’ new television has so many channels that Gilles passes through them at a dizzying, epileptic pace. Sophie pours all her frustration into watching television, choosing bizarre programming that’s as cracked as she is, including a program that features rapping puppets. Even when the TV is used for artistic means, Chabrol makes it clear that art on television is an abbreviated mutilation. When Sophie and Jeanne break into the home, where are the Lelièvres? Glued in front of the set. And what program represents the soundtrack for the movie’s brutal last third? That other masterpiece of inevitable tragedy, a recorded performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.