Claude Chabrol’s forty-ninth feature stands as the crowning achievement of his prolific career—a coolly riveting study of class dynamics, the psychology of crime, and the sordid secrets lurking beneath the veneer of everyday life. A fascinatingly enigmatic, César Award–winning Isabelle Huppert is the chaotic yin to Sandrine Bonnaire’s tightly coiled yang. They are, respectively, a small-town postal worker and a maid to a wealthy family, a pair of outsiders who form a mysterious alliance that gradually, almost imperceptibly, goes haywire. With a master’s control of sound, editing, and suspense, Chabrol constructs a tour de force of sustained tension that delivers each brilliant shock with ice-pick precision.
The one essential film missing from Arrow’s recent box sets for Claude Chabrol’s late-career work, the filmmaker’s 1995 film La cérémonie, ends up coming to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and is presented on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition digital master is sourced from a new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Éclair had involvement in this restoration, as they did with a few of the titles Arrow released (The Swindle, Nightcap, and The Flower of Evil), and like those titles, I was expecting their signature teal push to be present in the color grading. Yet that ends up not being the case. It can still be a bit greenish when you get down to it, which can be more evident in places. However, I didn’t find it all that bad on the whole; it has more of a natural appearance to it like it was a byproduct of the film development process and not some ghastly digital manipulation. Skin tones still look natural, not jaundiced, and black levels haven’t been impacted, looking deep with excellent gradations in the shadows. Blues can vary, looking more like a cyan much of the time, but some solid blues pop up. I don't know if it's correct, but it ultimately looked acceptable.
The restoration work cleaned the image thoroughly, and I can’t recall any significant blemish popping up. The scan has also captured every fine detail and texture down to the grain. The encode also looks good, rendering grain well, though some minor artifacts pop up.
All in all, this looked exceptional. It’s a sharp and clean-looking presentation.
Criterion presents the film’s 2.0 surround soundtrack in DTS-HD MA. Most of the dialogue focused on the center. The film’s sound design is subtle yet active (an element one special feature in this release focuses on), and it’s spread effectively between the speakers. Overall, the quality is sharp and clear, and there is no damage present.
Criterion’s special features go a similar route that Arrow went with their features by porting over content from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases while adding a couple of new ones. Unlike Arrow, sadly, Criterion opts not to include a commentary, instead recording a new introduction featuring director Bong Joon-ho. Considering Chabrol’s love for taking potshots at the bourgeoisie with analysis of class dynamics, Bong seems an obvious choice, with his Parasite naturally coming up. But Bong doesn’t focus on the message in Chabrol's films so much as how he presents it, seamlessly winding it into the narrative. He also admires Chabrol’s use of the economic use of editing and camera movement, which can all go by wholly unnoticed but play a vital part in creating the film’s mood.
That said, the material Criterion rounds up is all quite good, and they do at least include a supplement created for The Criterion Channel, a short 9-minute video presentation on the film’s offscreen sound design hosted by Jeff Smith. He explains how Chabrol uses offscreen sound to enhance the mood and tone or even highlight a character's possible insecurities. He breaks down a few sequences but saves the most thorough analysis for the film’s conclusion, where the sounds from two different situations “infiltrate” one another until everything comes together.
It's a nuanced analysis, though different from what Chabrol himself can offer in the included select-scene commentary. This plays out similarly to the “tracks” Arrow had on their Chabrol releases, where the filmmaker focuses heavily on the technical aspects of the film, particularly framing and camera movements. He even points out how the placement of objects can cause unease and explains the reasoning behind using the angles he does when framing the characters. Chabrol’s films always look deceptively simple, but these tracks reveal that they’re not and lay out the level of thought he puts into every composition and shot, right down to the accompanying soundtrack. It runs for 29 minutes.
There are also a couple of featurettes, including an 18-minute making-of featuring interviews with Chabrol, Huppert, Bonnaire, and Bisset. The actors talk about the experience of working with Chabrol while Chabrol discusses the film’s subject matter, all cut with behind-the-scenes footage. It has the feel of something made for DVD but is above average. Better is the 22-minute television special Isabelle Huppert and Claude Chabrol: Crosses Portraits, filmed in 1998 and featuring the two talking about their collaborations together, which includes this film, The Swindle, and Madame Bovary, just for starters, and of her Chabrol says that she “impacts greatness” to mediocre greatness. It’s a charming and fun retrospective with the two.
The disc then ports over two interviews, one with 2020 with Saheffndrine Bonnaire and another with screenwriter (and psychotherapist!) Caroline Eliacheff. Both are exceptionally insightful of the film and its characters, with Bonnaire talking about the planning behind her character, right down to her bangs, which Bonnaire based on Dorothée, a French singer and TV personality. Eliacheff focuses on the true crime element of the film since the story is based on an amalgamation of true events, including the Papin sisters. She also expresses how the crimes that “go down in history” are the ones that feel representative of the time. They run for 13 minutes and 9 minutes, respectively.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer (looking to be taken from a DVD), and the included insert features an essay by Sarah Weinman, who likens the stories to crime novels like those written by Patricia Highsmith.
Arrow would have included a commentary, I’m sure (with a 50/50 chance that it would have been any good). However, Criterion has still assembled fine material exploring the film’s themes and Chabrols’ technical expertise behind the camera.
It could benefit from more academic material, but the film (finally) receives a solid release in North America.