Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) obtains a new job as a live-in maid in La Ceremonie (1995). As always she struggles to keep secret that her dyslexia has left her illiterate. By a combination of luck, guarded paranoia, & cleverness, she winds her way through a world requiring language, rarely detected for her limitation.
She excels as a housecleaner & cook & works harder than is rational, so that her apparent eccentricities are overlooked, most of which involve not admitting why she evades books, words, signs, lists or labels. She causes herself & those around her considerable stress by never admitting the basis for her limitations.
She is befriended by Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a postal worker who caused her daughter's death. Both women have secrets & the more they find out about one another, the more abnormally bonded they become.
The husband of the household (Jean-Pierre Cassel) mistrusts Sophie & more-so Sophie's new friend, whom he has every reason to believe opens & reads his mail before delivering it. His wife (Jacqueline Bisset) & the two teenagers are kind to Sophie & forgive her her peculiarities, but she keeps forever emotionally distant, & is more than a little strange.
When the first strong commandment comes down, to never have her crude friend Jeanne to the house again, Sophie begins to nurture an increasing hatred for the whole family. A maid learns everything about a family & suddenly she desires to use her knowledge against them. The husband's first wife committed suicide, for instance. His current wife may have been rather slutty if not an actual prostitute in her youth. And their daughter is pregnant.
The daughter of the household, Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen), seems mostly to like Sophie, or at least puts on a great show of disliking the social line between servant & employer as an echo of former standards of serf & lord. When Melinda realizes the maid is illierate, she becomes insistent that her father will pay for reading lessons or whatever it takes. Sophie is not the least bit grateful for the warm concern, however, & threatens to reveal that Melinda is pregnant if she tells anyone about her illiteracy.
[SPOILERS ALERT!] Melinda, stricken by this threat, tells her parents about her pregnancy & about Sophie's attempt at blackmail. The family confronts Sophie & says they understand now why some things have been odd & that illiteracy is forgiveable & repairable, but her attempt at blackmail is not, & she has one week to find another situation & leave.
A jolly shocking climax is in the making when Jeanne & Sophie join forces to cut the phone lines to the house, load two shotguns, & set forth to slaughter the family of four with little or no good reason. They might actually never have been found out, too, except for one undetected & conclusive piece of evidence. [END SPOILER ALERT]
Based on the Ruth Rendell novel A Judgement in Stone (1977), the film is very true to the emotional darkness & twisted characterizations typical of Rendell. Claude Chabrol was the perfect director to bring this literary flavor to a cinematic context, as in the past Hitchcock & John Huston were able to do in translating fine writing into fine filmmaking.
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