Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremonie, a characteristically small-scale study of a sordid crime in provincial France, towers above the competition. This transposition to Brittany of A Judgement in Stone is the most successful dramatisation of a Ruth Rendell novel that I have seen, and is Chabrol at his Hitchcockian best.
From the opening scene he starts to create a tense, uneasy mood as the haute-bourgeois housewife Mme Lelievre (a handsome, assured Jacqueline Bisset) interviews the gaunt Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) in a St Malo cafe for the job of a live-in maid at the opulent home she occupies with her husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and two teenage children.
We gradually learn that Sophie is a frustrated secret illiterate with infantilist tendencies and may have killed her father. She is drawn into a dangerous friendship with the local postmistress, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a scheming psychopath.
With his acute eye for social detail and the rituals and rhythms of everyday life, Chabrol keeps a careful balance between our sympathy for the two resentful working-class outsiders and the well-off bourgeois family. Together, Jeanne and Sophie generate something we might loosely call evil, but they are not monsters. Likewise, the Lelievres may be smug, and they see Jeanne as a creature from another world; but they are not set up as middle-class targets for some form of justifiable Genet-esque revenge.
The horrific climax of this superbly acted film is given particular resonance because the family has been drawn together precisely through the rejection of Sophie, and they sit watching a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on television. This is as cold, precise and terrifying as anything Hitchcock devised.