La Cérémonie (1995)

Director: Claude Chabrol

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Old World is a prisoner of history that the adolescent New World can barely grasp. Centuries of crimes against humanity and a highly stratified society with clear divisions between nobility and peasantry have made the transition of European nations to bourgeois bastions of commerce stormy. Although they might like to turn away from this history, European artists living with so many tangible reminders of a long-ago past—from medieval streets to centuries-old palaces—seem always to be caught in its web.

Claude Chabrol is credited with producing the first film of the French New Wave, Le Beau Serge (1958), signaling a movement that sought to tear itself away from convention and focus on the now, not the past, on the New World, not the Old. Chabrol continues to make films that challenge the social order, with 2006’s The Comedy of Power (La Comèdie du Pouvoir) his latest stab at the heart of French complacency and political mendacity.

La Cérémonie begins as a simple transaction between Catherine Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bissett), a wealthy woman in need of a maid, and Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), an applicant for the job. The women meet in a coffee shop, and Catherine insists on buying Sophie a cup of tea. This is the last time we’ll see Sophie served by Catherine. Sophie provides a written reference from her previous employer, whose move out of the country is the cause of Sophie’s joblessness, and answers all of Catherine’s questions satisfactorily. Catherine hires her and asks her to start in two days. Catherine will meet her 9 a.m. train. It is Sophie who brings up the question of wages; a flustered Catherine proposes an increase of 500 francs over her previous wages. Done.

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At home, Catherine talks with her blended family over a dinner of mussels and wine—her second husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassell), a music lover; her teenaged son Gilles (Valentin Merlet); and Georges’ daughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen). Gilles thinks it’s degrading to call Sophie a maid. Georges defends the title as an honest and accurate one. It is easy to imagine philosophical conversations like this going on in posh households all over France, a very philosophical country with very bourgeois needs.

On the appointed day, Catherine goes to meet Sophie. The 9 a.m. train comes, but Sophie does not appear. Only when the train pulls out of the station does Catherine see Sophie sitting on another platform. Sophie says she took an earlier train. Catherine again seems flustered by another break in decorum. Sophie seems peculiar—blunt, remote, and unpredictable.

At they prepare to drive to the house—which Catherine warned Sophie was quite isolated, though near a large town—they are waylaid by the local postal clerk Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who begs a ride to the post office. Jeanne and Sophie exchange investigative glances. Once Jeanne leaves, Catherine confides to Sophie that her husband Georges can’t stand the woman. Apparently, Jeanne was implicated in the death of her developmentally disabled daughter, but exonerated for lack of evidence.

We have all the elements of a conventional horror movie in place—isolated estate, odd servant, suspected murderer in town. Chabrol’s genius is in locating horror in everyday life and resentments, not in physically creepy environs underlined with foreboding music and menacing stares. He gives us a bourgeois family that seems fairly normal, comfortable with their privilege without seeming to be defined by it. We get an extremely competent maid who seems strange, almost autistic at times when she is around the family, but smiling and happy when she forms a friendship with Jeanne. Jeanne is immature, rebellious, envious, as would befit an average woman prevented by a teenaged pregnancy from making more of herself. She admits to being very jealous of the Lelièvres, spotting Catherine as a former model and then telling of her own, certainly fictitious, chance to model that was spoiled.

Georges represents the seemingly tough, but fair patriarchy that rules the world. He bans Jeanne from the house for opening his mail—a charge he can’t prove—and ceremonie3.jpgSophie must accept this because he is her employer and this is the way the world works. Chabrol is a rebel, however, and he doesn’t leave his “anarchists” without their defenses. Sophie has been one step ahead of the Lelièvres by her willingness to act blatantly in her own self-interest. Sophie walks out on an impromptu party, infuriating Catherine, but in full justification because she had already arranged to be off that day. She doesn’t wait in polite forbearance for favors to be bestowed. She can’t afford to.

There is a hint of lesbianism in Jeanne and Sophie’s relationship—note how Jeanne sits playfully on her bed when she has Sophie over for tea, and how Sophie jumps on her and tickles her. Some commentators have mentioned that Chabrol has a negative attitude toward homosexuality, and certainly he plays into a large, negative stereotype about lesbians in this film. Nonetheless, Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert are the best French actresses of their generation and know how to bring a rainbow of colors to their characters that tend to deaden the cliché into which they are written.

Ultimately, Chabrol has an explosive period of French history repeat itself in the denouement of this film, ironically, as the Lelièvres watch a live broadcast of an opera by Mozart, the musician who brought opera to Germans in their own language instead of the elitists’ preference, Italian. Chabrol reserves judgment on the morality of both sides of the battle of the classes. The menace remains, and that’s the real horror. l

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