Women beware women

LA CEREMONIE Claude Chabrol (15) RESTORATION Michael Hoffman (15)
Perhaps we ought to be worried. The past year has seen a stream of films about female outcasts chuming up and killing merrily, left and right, in the north of England (Butterfly Kiss) and in provincial France (Sister My Sister), in New Zealand (Heavenly Creatures) and in America (Fun). And there is also, of course, the granny of them all, Thelma and Louise. It was on the cards that Claude Chabrol - famed both for his psychodramas and for creating cracking roles for women, most notably in the magnificent cycle of late Sixties thrillers with his then-wife Stephane Audran - should be drawn to this material. It fits like a hand in a glove - or a knife in a sheath, a bullet in a rifle.

In La Ceremonie, adapted from Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), a strange young woman with hollow, haunted eyes, enters service with an upper middle-class family in rural Britanny. At first they agonise with liberal good intentions over how they should refer to their new help. "Bonne" (maid) seems too condescending, but soon they're calling her the even more derogatory "boniche" (skivvy), and treating her like one. A model housekeeper, Bonnaire is a study in passive-aggressive submission, concealing anger, resentment and, eventually, violence. But, a treasure to the last, she painstakingly scrubs the house clean as a whistle after her crimes.

It comes to this after she befriends the flakey, irreverent village postmistress (Isabelle Huppert, excellent in an uncharacteristic role). They are bonded by a dark secret: one has emerged as above all suspicion of a murder which she actually committed. The other has been acquitted on a formality of a death which was probably an accident. The difference reflects the dynamic of their relationship: Huppert, apparently the loose cannon, is, in fact, the less ruthless of the two.

It turns out that Bonnaire is illiterate and suffers bitterly from her handicap - but, Chabrol suggests, in this passive, televisual culture that's really no great loss; the only texts she has to decipher are scribbled notes and shopping lists. Everyone is always slumped in front of the box, whether they're watching operas or game shows (the climactic murders take place there), and the house has a library bulging with books that no one, apart from Huppert, seems interested in reading.

The plot is not a strong point; the nuts and bolts don't slide together quite as smoothly as they could. Some background details are a little blurry, notably those of Bonnaire's bourgeois employers (does the mother run an art gallery, as she claims, or is she a high-class hooker, as Huppert insists?). And an audio cassette that will be vital evidence has somehow conveniently managed to rewind itself to the exact incriminating moment when the police come across it. But Chabrol has always been more interested in character and reaps spot-on performances from his two leads and impressive supporting cast.

Restoration has been picked for the modestly titled "Premiere of the Century", a job for which it might seem well suited. The Prince of Wales should be gratified by its espousal of royalism: set in the 1660s, it depicts Charles II as a charming libertine, but also a visionary who reshaped the nation and launched an explosion of creative endeavour after Oliver Cromwell's cheerless rule. But the self-important premiere also creates expectations in excess of what the film can deliver.

It falls into four parts. Merivel, a dissolute physician (Robert Downey Jr), becomes a court favourite after curing the king's spaniel, more by luck than by skill. He is told to contract a paper marriage with Charles's beautiful mistress, but on no account to fall in love with her. Holed up with her at his new country seat, he yields to the inevitable, is banished and finds peace working at an insane asylum. There, he fathers a child by one of the inmates (Meg Ryan, not quite convincing), and, when she dies, returns to the capital in time for the Plague and the Great Fire.

The film has spent an extraordinarily long time (18 months) in post-production, and while by no means a disaster, the story has a baggy, patched-together feel, as though someone had lost sight of its overall shape and rhythms: ancillary characters die or disappear for long stretches just as they're beginning to command our interest, while Merivel, whose spiritual restoration is supposed to be the film's theme, often looks more like he's a victim of circumstances, drifting ineffectually from pillar to post. Incidental pleasures are to be had from the pukka cast (Sam Neill as the charismatic king, David Thewlis as Merivel's Quaker friend, Hugh Grant in a choice cameo as a malicious painter), and the well-upholstered production design.

n On general release from 8 March