Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire in La cérémonie (1995)

LA CEREMONIE (La Cérémonie)

(director/writer: Claude Chabrol; screenwriter: from a book by Ruth Rendell “A Judgement in Stone”; cinematographer: Bernard Zitzermann; editor: Monique Fardoulis; cast: Isabelle Huppert (Jeanne), Sandrine Bonnaire (Sophie), Jacqueline Bisset (Catherine Lelievre), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Georges Lelievre), Virginie Ledoyen (Melinda), Valentin Merlet (Gilles); Runtime: 112; MK2/MKL; 1995-Fr.)

“The exorcism of bourgeois complacency is delivered with force.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This film is based on Ruth Rendell’s mystery novel, A Judgment in Stone. It is a taut, tension-filled thriller, building up to a violent climax after a slow start sets up the climactic action scenes. Chabrol, the noted New Wave director, who is a prolific filmmaker from the ’50s on, has returned to top form after many years of average films with this solid character study that exposes warped personalities who feel alienated from society. In the hands of a crafty director like Chabrol, the film is able to elicit many different kinds of emotional responses to the character’s alienation. In many ways Chabrol is on par with the likes of Hitchcock and Lang, even though he is unjustly disregarded by many critics for his earlier commercial ventures and for his later failures. But when he is on the mark, as he is with this film, then he is as good as anyone. He has created such diverse beauties as: The Cousins, Les Bonnes Femmes, Le Beau Serge, Le Boucher, Ten Days’ Wonder, La Rupture,and This Man Must Die.

The plot is very simple. The Lelievres are a bourgeois couple with a son, Gilles (Valentin), and a stepdaughter, Melinda (Virginie). Catherine (Jacqueline) runs an art gallery and Georges (Cassel) is a lawyer. They need a live-in maid for their luxurious house in the outskirts of Brittany. Sophie (Sandrine) applies for the job and is interviewed by Catherine in a cafe, as they discuss the demanding job requirements. The maid is businesslike but seems coldly withdrawn. She’s hired since she presents good references. But she hides from the family the fact that she is illiterate; and, even though she appears creepy she still satisfies Catherine’s wish to have a worker who will not complain about all the household chores she’s asked to do.

Sophie is a loner, content to be watching TV and throwing herself into her work chores; she, especially, enjoys doing the ironing. She does everything possible to cover-up her illiteracy, and does not take kindly to the family’s attempts to help her (as well intentioned as they are, they still act in a condescending manner). Sophie is befriended by another misfit, Jeanne (Isabelle), who works in the post office and is detested by Georges. Jeanne went to trial in another town for killing her daughter but there was not enough proof to convict her, so the judge called it an unfortunate accident and the post office reinstated her; but, transferred her to Brittany. Jeanne exhibits an unstable personality, is a schemer, and is hostile to people whom she says have all the breaks in life, reserving most of her hatred for the Lelievres.

Jeanne being a natural snoop discovers that Sophie was accused of setting her house on fire and killing her father; but since it couldn’t be proven, she was set free. With this strong secret bond between them, an unsavory friendship grows. The Lelievre family is viewed as being more or less kindly in nature, interested in education and good books, certainly not a family to be despised, yet the girls hate them because of their wealth and high position in life.

Chabrol succeeds in showing the anger these two have inside them and how it is possible in their relationship for this anger to become deadly. He indicates that if left to themselves it is unlikely that their anger would have been manifested in such a deadly manner.

We never get to know Sophie. She says as little as possible, even to her friend. We never get her to admit that she killed her father. All we know, for sure, is that she is illiterate and is capable of destroying things and of lying.

The film concludes with a bloodbath. We read about unusual crimes like this in the tabloids, and we have knee-jerk reactions toward the criminals based on our pre-conceived beliefs. Chabrol pokes fun at the upper-class but is still able to show that it is not entirely their fault that the underprivileged can’t rise. The family is joyfully listening to the opera Don Giovanni just before they are accosted by the two female losers. The only enjoyment we have seen from the two women comes from either their ironing or snooping. The destruction of the family that follows is shocking and brutal, it is symbolically an attack on Western civilization.

Chabrol’s camera work magnificently shows the tension and movement toward violence long before it happens. The acting is top-notch, the mannered performances of the family was terrific, and the exorcism of bourgeois complacency is delivered with force.