3½ stars (out of four)
No one can bedevil the provincial bourgeosie like 76-year-old Claude Chabrol, the cheerful French master of the domestic thriller. He does it once more in "The Bridesmaid," a superbly unsettling crime drama about a seemingly ordinary family, ravaged by passions that descend on them like a plague.
The movie, which stars Benoit Magimel ("The Piano Teacher") and Laura Smet ("Gilles' Wife"), is based on British thriller specialist Ruth Rendell's novel. Rendell's story, closely followed by Chabrol, is about a middle-class family torn apart. Mother Christine (Aurore Clement) is deserted by her lover, youngest daughter Sophie (Solene Bouton) gets mired in drugs and crime and son Philippe (Magimel) falls in love at the wedding of his other sister (Anna Mihalcea) with her strange and beautiful bridesmaid, Stephanie, a.k.a. Senta (Smet).
"The Bridesmaid" is about mad love and the passion that kills--and the passion which, in this case, demands murder in return. It's ideal material for Chabrol, a genius at evoking the perversity that can lie beneath carefully composed social surfaces, like Philippe's.
Philippe's inner life is suggested by the ways he falls wildly in love, at first with the bust of a woman, which he steals and hides in his room, and then with Senta, who resembles the bust. And her inner life is more chilling; after she seduces Philippe body and soul, she startlingly tells him a list of things they must each do to prove their love.
One is to plant a tree. Another is to make love with a person of your own sex. Still another is to kill a complete stranger.
What follows this shocking proposal is one of those psychological whirlpools of horror, made more powerful by the acutely sensitive acting of the whole cast, especially Magimel. An astoundingly versatile actor, he played another, less passive object of passion in Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher." But he was also great as that least repressed of lovers, 19th Century French poet Alfred de Musset, in Diane Kurys' "Children of the Century." And he's unforgettable as the lovelorn bourgeois here.
Chabrol has been directing great movie thrillers--in the mode of Hitchcock, Rendell, Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith--since he made the New Wave classic "Le Beau Serge" in 1958. His old compatriots, including Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, have had their ups and downs during the same period. But Chabrol, working in his more limited milieu, has been able to survive all changes of fashion.
Chabrol says he wants the horror in his films to creep up on the viewer, and that's what happens in "The Bridesmaid"--a classic of realistic terror, in which passion and murder can't lie buried.
Directed by Claude Chabrol; written by Pierre Leccia and Chabrol, from the novel by Ruth Rendell; photographed by Eduardo Serra; edited by Monique Fardoulis; production designed by Francoise Benoit-Fresco; music by Matthieu Chabrol; produced by Antonio Passalia, Patrick Godeau, Alfred Huermer. (In French, with English subtitles.) A First Run Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. No MPAA rating (adult: language, sexuality and offscreen violence).
Philippe - Benoit Magimel
Senta - Laura Smet
Christine - Aurore Clement
Gerard - Bernard Le Coq
Sophie - Solene Bouton
The Tramp - Michel Duchaussoy