Decades ago, in the heyday of Bunuel and Godard, the art-house audience could take in a movie about ”the bourgeoisie” safe in the conviction that the pampered hypocrites on screen had little, if anything, to do with their own enlightened selves. But that was in another age, when counterculture attitudes still had cachet among the moneyed classes. The joke — and shock — of Claude Chabrol’s nasty domestic thriller La Ceremonie is that the bourgeoisie are us: When they get what’s coming to them, so, by implication, does the audience.
In a beautiful village on the northwest coast of France, a spoiled upper-middle-class family, living in cozified splendor, are subverted by their mysterious new housekeeper (Sandrine Bonnaire), an efficient yet weirdly poker-faced runt of a girl whose glare of mopey disaffection suggests that she’s either a dimwit or a sociopath (or both). We soon learn that she’s illiterate, and that she’ll go to mad lengths to conceal this fact from her employers; the simple act of having to read a grocery list is enough to set her off on a frenzy of scheming. But her duplicitousness remains benign until she’s befriended by a local post-office worker (Isabelle Huppert), a ragtag, vaguely leftist troublemaker who despises the family and will do anything to piss them off. Huppert, who has spent entire movies without deigning to move one of her beautiful facial muscles, now breaks loose into gleeful fits of nose-thumbing anarchy.
The cleverness of La Ceremonie lies in the way that Chabrol stacks the deck on both sides. He lets the story unfold from the point of view of the housekeeper-waif and her hostile partner in crime (the two have a tacit flirtation), yet he makes the family more attractive than either of these two. (As the mother, Jacqueline Bisset is all legs and savoir faire.) The movie gets us rooting both for the family and against them. Chabrol may fancy La Ceremonie a filigreed Marxist parable, but the truth is that he’s aiming for lower organs. By the time the film arrives at its Grand Guignol climax, it has been revealed as an elegant variation on the crudest of Hollywood formulas: the housekeeper-from-hell thriller. Still, you can just about feel the tingle of dreadful recognition in the audience. The charm of the bourgeoisie has rarely been made this teasingly discreet.