Underscoring the extent to which good help is hard to find, A Judgment in Stone is a character-driven tragicomic treat in which a well-to-do family hires a hard-working but withdrawn young maid to tend their isolated manse, with unforeseen results.
The chic Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) to be the new live-in housekeeper at the large country estate she shares with her well-heeled husband, Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and their adolescent son. Catherine’s 20-year-old step-daughter, Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen), sometimes comes to visit.
Sophie is a disciplined cipher but grows agitated – even ornery – when asked to perform certain basic tasks. Her abrupt behavior eventually leads to her dismissal, but not before she’s struck up a liberating friendship with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), an insolent live wire who runs the village post office.
A natural busybody, Jeanne is as perky and informal as Sophie is stiff and stern. Each woman harbors at least one dark secret.
From the first frames, Claude Chabrol establishes an expectant atmosphere, with ample payoff in the end, updating Ruth Rendell’s mid-1960s novel. Performances are on-target across the board, with an intelligently cast ensemble and just the right amount of tension in the master-servant equation.
Shot in the dead of winter near Saint-Malo, pic favors a bleak, pale, washed-out look. Pic’s French title stems from the fact that, in olden days, an execution for a capital crime was referred to as ‘the ceremony.’