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“A Judgment in Stone” is a character-driven tragicomic treat in which a well-to-do family hires a hard-working but withdrawn young maid to tend their isolated manse, with unforeseen results. Perfectly at home with the material and his experienced cast , director Claude Chabrol achieves a delicious intermingling of the benign and sinister that will be welcome in international arthouses.
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 stepdaughter, Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) , sometimes comes to visit. Not overtly condescending or pretentious, they’re the comfortable, privileged family par excellence.
Sophie is a disciplined cipher whose only pleasures are eating chocolate and watching TV. She keeps the large house spotless and cooks to everyone’s satisfaction but grows agitated — even ornery — when asked to perform certain basic tasks.
The underlying reason for Sophie’s 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. Georges has a violent aversion to Jeanne, whom, he is convinced, is opening his mail.
A natural busybody, Jeanne is as perky and informal as Sophie is stiff and stern. Each woman harbors at least one dark secret, the revelation of which is hilariously juxtaposed with a charitable mission for the local church.
From the first frames, Chabrol establishes an expectant atmosphere, with ample payoff in the end. Updating Ruth Rendell’s mid-1960s novel, helmer deftly shows the different roles that TV plays in the lives of the cultured and uncultured.
Catherine and son diligently tune in to a contemporary film classic but don’t pay the slightest attention to it, while Huppert and Bonnaire are positively rapt before the crummiest filler the tube has to offer. A cozy family viewing of a televised opera ends with a literal and figurative bang — slyly implying that by cloaking itself in high culture, bourgeois society fails to notice even the most blatant indications as to what the working class is up to.
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. Lensing and editing carry the story along at just the right pace, with surprises unfolding right up to the closing credits. Matthieu Chabrol’s slightly melancholy, classically inflected score uses strings to good effect.
Pic’s French title stems from the fact that, in olden days, an execution for a capital crime was referred to as “the ceremony.”