British author Ruth Rendell died this May, at age 85, a few months after suffering a debilitating stroke. Rendell, one of literature’s formost practitioners of thrillers and psychological murder mysteries, was not particularly well known to American readers, readers who, judging by The New York Times “Best Sellers List,” preferred to spend their precious free time on pablum written by Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, J.D. Robb, Lee Child, W.E.B. Griffin and Patricia Cornwell, to name but a few, all of them creative midgets cowering in the shadow of Rendell’s prodigious talents.
Don’t believe me? Well, no less than Scott Turow has said that Rendell “is surely one of the greatest novelists presently at work in our language. She is a writer whose work should be read by anyone who enjoys either brilliant mystery—or distinguished literature.” The Queen of England felt similarly, appointing Rendell a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1996.
Rendell’s prolific oeuvre (at least a book a year) comprised three distinct strands: police procedurals featuring her most popular character, the stolid Reginald Wexford, Chief Inspector of police in the fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham; stand-alone psychological crime novels; and, finally, a series of even more nuanced tales of psychological suspense written under the non de plume, Barbara Vine.
Although never less than compelling and often tackling sticky de jour societal problems (class politics, genital mutilation, domestic violence, etc.), her Wexford books were pretty traditional in their procedural design (crime committed, various suspects identified, denouement). Her other two series, though? They were pretty sick, and I’m not talking in the gore sense. Quite simply, Rendell had an uncanny ability, via her deep insight into the motivations of very flawed human beings, to make your skin crawl as she, using very simple, straightforward prose, unfolded her plots around characters who often toed the line between normal and sociopathic.
So why am I writing about her, you ask? This is, after all, a movie blog.
Well, it just so happens that there have been some pretty great movies based on Rendell’s works. My favorite two are French. You should seek them out. Here are the details:
La Cérémonie (1995, dir. Claude Chabrol)
One of Rendell’s most popular and enduring works, 1977’s A Judgement in Stone, begins with this shocking line:
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.”
Now, the reason I say shocking isn’t because of what befell the Coverdale family, but rather that Rendell, not 13 words into her 200-page novel, revealed both the killer and the victims, an astounding break from the traditional dramatic structure of the mystery genre, one that must’ve sent Agatha Christie rolling in her grave.
But Rendell, like the best practitioners of psychological suspense (Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, to name a few), wasn’t all that interested in who killed whom. What Rendell cared about was the “why?” Which is why her books are ripe with–this from Wikipedia–“romantic obsession, misperceived communication, the impact of chance and coincidence, the humanity of the criminals…and the unintended consequences of family secrets and hidden crimes.”
Eighteen years after the book’s publication, director Claude Chabrol tackled an adaptation. A member of the French New Wave, Chabrol, like his contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, was a critic and essayist at Cahiers du cinéma before becoming a filmmaker. He also was a huge Alfred Hitchcock advocate, thus making the slow-burn intensity of Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone an ideal match to his sensibilities.
The film stars Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, who, as the movie opens, secures a job as maid to the Lelièvres, a wealthy family living in Brittany who, despite their privileges, are generally down-to-earth, empathetic employers. Sophie is a strange bird–she goes about her chores and then, after, retreats to her room, transfixed by the TV.
The relationship between employer and employee soon deteriorates, however, the rift caused not only by Sophie’s strange behavior (she won’t use the dishwasher, or take driving lessons, etc., for fear that her illiteracy will be revealed), but also her budding relationship with local postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a rude gossip who has it out for the bourgeoisie Lelièvre family, especially its matriarch, Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset).
Both Sophie and Jeanne hide secrets involving violent pasts. The pair become more bold in their bad behavior, including the attempted blackmail of the Lelièvre’s daughter, played by the incomparably beautiful and Conflicted Film Snob Crush, Virginie Ledoyen:
Fed up, the Lelièvres dismiss Sophie. Retribution is sought, driven by the dominating and angry Jeanne. A shocking and senseless act of violence ensues as the entire Lelièvre clan (mère, père, soeur et frère) sit together on a couch watching an opera on TV.
As with so many French films, this one moves slowly, content to observe the behaviors of these two somewhat unhinged women, how their interactions strengthen the worst of each other’s dysfunctions. Chabrol does nothing showy with his camera, merely sets it up and films the growing resentment between the working class Jeanne and Sophie and the upper crust Lelièvres. Like Rendell’s book, the film is as much a sharp commentary on class differences than tale of murder. It’s also pretty darkly funny. That is, until the final outrage, which is all the more devastating because the Lelièvres are decent, all four of them affectionate to each other and respectful of the community at large. These are not a group of jerks who had it coming.
Rendell counts this adaptation of her work as one of the few she truly enjoyed.
Swimming Pool (2003, dir. François Ozon)
This is a bit of a fudge in that in that the film isn’t based on a work by Ruth Rendell, but rather uses her as a (loose) model for its central character, a famous British crime novelist. Close enough, though, right?
Charlotte Rampling plays Sarah Morton, the aforementioned novelist, who, suffering from writer’s block, is offered access to her publisher’s French country house to get away from London, clear her mind.
A bit chilly in personality and very regimented (as writers tend to be), Morton soon finds her work and peace disrupted by a young woman named Julie (the lithe and frequently naked Ludivine Sagnier) who claims to be the publisher’s daughter via a mistress. Julie spends her days frolicking in the pool and nights having sex with whomever she’s able to bring home from the local village.
Needless to say, Morton doesn’t like the arrangement. Her anger soon gives way to fascination, which in turn gives way to jealousy and competition.
Strangeness ensues, including probably the most painful-to-watch dancing scene (involving a drunk, pathetic Morton) ever put to film this side of The Conflicted Film Snob unknowingly being recorded dancing at some long ago wedding, video that has yet to surface, thankfully; oral sex in the pool; murder via blunt force trauma; murky pasts; people lying about identity; reality v. fiction; and, to top it all off, a very ambiguous ending.
A noted earlier, Morton isn’t totally Rendell. However, Rampling used Rendell’s hairstyle and certain coolness of demeanor as starting points for how she inhabited the character. Furthermore, the movie’s overall ambiguity and its careful observation of the interaction between slightly “off” characters and the tragedies that follow is very Rendellian.
Finally, for any of my three readers who are interested in reading Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, you should know that she wrote almost 70 novels. To help you navigate, let me present to you some of my favorites:
- An Unkindness of Ravens
- Road Rage
- Harm Done
- The Babes in the Wood
- End in Tears
Rendell stand-alone psychological crime novels:
- A Judgement in Stone
- The Crocodile Bird
- A Sight For Sore Eyes
- The Water’s Lovely
Rendell writing as Barbara Vine:
- A Dark-Adapted Eye
- A Fatal Inversion
- The House of Stairs
- Anna’s Book (called Asta’s Book in Europe)
- No Night Is Too Long
- The Brimstone Wedding
- The Minotaur
- The Birthday Present