La Ceremonie Film Critique Essay

Surrounded by the daunting opulence of the Lelievre house, Sophie feels the need for an ally. She accidentally finds one in Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the local postmistress, who is insolent, reckless and even slightly unhinged. Jeanne is irrepressibly nosy, and she's happy to voice any rude thought that comes to mind. She's not quite a liar, but she has a way of getting her facts wrong, as when she confuses ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' with a book by Celine. And Jeanne happens to loathe Georges Lelievre. He loathes her, too.

''La Ceremonie'' is based on ''A Judgment in Stone,'' a book by the crime writer Ruth Rendell, whose view of human nature is every bit as big-hearted as Alfred Hitchcock's, and almost as fascinatingly macabre. This story has a chilling, lethal inevitability from the very start. But the artistry of ''La Ceremonie'' is in Mr. Chabrol's precise control of his material and in the way an intricate, unnerving bond is seen growing between Sophie and Jeanne. Ms. Huppert, who has more often played reserved characters like Sophie, is simply astonishing as the loose cannon capable of blowing up the film's small, tidy world.

There's plenty of social criticism implicit in the way the film contrasts these resentful women with the oblivious bourgeoisie. But Mr. Chabrol is much too astute to draw easy conclusions.

Class tensions fuel the intrigue, but some of these characters are much too peculiar to speak for anything beyond themselves. There's an extraordinary scene, for instance, in which Sophie and Jeanne have an impromptu birthday party and trade secrets, exchanging information that would send a more conventional thriller into overdrive.

Instead, Mr. Chabrol notices how each woman's recognition of the other as a soul mate cancels out any pangs of conscience. Nothing could be more unsettling than their secret little smiles. And this friendship is made to seem all the spookier when the women, so intensely drawn together, embrace each other often but don't bother with sexual love.

Within the sedate realm of the Lelievres, Ms. Bisset glides demurely through the film and still manages to suggest that the highly unflattering things Jeanne says about her might be true. She and Mr. Cassel have exactly the right regal assurance to make this story work. So does Ms. Ledoyen, the star of the recent ''A Single Girl,'' whose very poised, impervious appearance strikes Jeanne as an affront.

There's a little scene in which Jeanne's car has broken down, Melinda stops to help her and Melinda finds herself holding the grime-stained cloth that she used on the car. How would such a privileged young woman casually dispose of such a thing? It's a small exchange, but precisely the sort of moment that Mr. Chabrol can turn quietly devastating. From many such building blocks, ''La Ceremonie'' is beautifully and wickedly made.

LA CEREMONIE

Directed by Claude Chabrol; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff, based on the novel ''A Judgment in Stone,'' by Ruth Rendell; director of photography, Bernard Zitzermann; edited by Monique Fardoulis; music by Mathieu Chabrol; produced by Marin Karmitz; released by New Yorker Films. Running time: 111 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Isabelle Huppert (Jeanne), Sandrine Bonnaire (Sophie), Jacqueline Bisset (Catherine Lelievre), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Georges Lelievre), Virginie Ledoyen (Melinda Lelievre) and Valentin Merlet (Gilles Lelievre).

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La cérémonie (A Judgement in Stone, 1995 France, 111mins, 35mm)

Source: CNC Prod. Co: MK2 production, France 3 Cinéma, Prokino Filmproduction, Olgafilm, ZDF production in association with Canal+, CNC Prod: Marin Karmiz Dir: Claude Chabrol Scr: Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff based on the novel by Ruth Rendell Phot: Bernard Zitzermann Ed: Monique Fardoulis Art Dir: Daniel Mercier Mus: Matthieu Chabrol

Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jacqueline Bisset, Virginie Ledoyen, Jean-François Perrier.

Released in 1995, Claude Chabrol’s forty-ninth feature, La cérémonie, was greeted with ecstatic reviews. Les cahiers du cinéma suggested Chabrol may be France’s greatest filmmaker. (2) Seen retrospectively, in light of his two most recent features – Au coeur du mensonge (1999), Merci pour le chocolat (2000) – what may be striking to some viewers is the film’s sheer minimalist aesthetic. The title, changed from Ruth Rendel’s source novel A Judgement in Stone, invokes the notion of ritual: an important theme that informs both the narrative and directorial style.

The narrative premise is unremarkable. Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is hired by the well-off Lelièvre family to work as their maid in residence. She strikes a friendship with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a troublesome and eccentric postal clerk. But tensions mount between Sophie and her employers, such as when they forbid her to receive Jeanne, whom they suspect of opening their mail. This conflict, resulting from admittedly familiar class-tensions, paves the way for an unspeakably violent denouement. In itself, La cérémonie offers a pretty archetypal narrative pattern, familiar to Chabrol, which moves from the quotidian to tragedy, and with notable antecedents in both crime fiction and high literature (remember, Chabrol has adapted Madame Bovary).

The film’s undermining of conventional social dynamics is subtly inscribed in its mise en scène. As a perceptive review in Les cahiers noted, Sophie’s second appearance bears a hint of the unexpected: as the wife Catherine comes to meet her at the train station, Sophie is already waiting on a separate platform. (3) Her being placed (initially) outside of the frame suggests omniscience: she’s free to see all, yet remain unseen. Within the formal set-up of this scene, she implicitly has the upper hand over her employer, which foreshadows the genuine reversal of power she will eventually exercise over Catherine and her family.

More interestingly, Chabrol presents certain gestures and actions in a rigorously mannered form, making them seem ritualistic. As the relationship between Jeanne and Sophie grows increasingly intimate, he shows them at one point seated arm-in-arm. Although they are sharing affection, in their composure Sophie and Jeanne appear mechanical, as if their actions are the playing out some larger scheme.

In crime fiction, criminal behaviour is often not so much a result of free agency as something determined by psychological and social factors. However, in Chabrol, the urge to explain crime is undermined by the competing view that evil itself is unexplainable. Sophie and Jeanne’s illicit behaviour is not simply a compulsive backlash against class inequality but a curiously ordained ritual. The ceremony of the title is of course the killing of the Lelièvre family. This is both tragic irony and poetic justice since not only does Lelièvre mean “the hare” but Sophie and Jeanne use the same rifles that the family uses to hunt animal prey.

Given a closer look, though, “evil” for Chabrol reveals a mixture of conflicted sentiments, including ambivalent attitudes towards homosexuality. The astute readers will have noted the homoeroticism in the above descriptions of Jeanne and Sophie. Regrettably, traces of homophobia are present in Chabrol’s early film criticism, from the ’50s, but I think it would be a mistake to locate comparably unmitigated bigotry in his later films. As readers of Patricia Highsmith should know, crime fiction often has a double-edged take on so-called “sexual deviancy,” making it the subject of the author’s morbid romanticism. In La cérémonie, the characters’ latent sexualities may insidiously be equated with evil, but this evil remains immeasurably more moral than the hypocritical and hierarchical society it attacks.

Endnotes

  1. Spoiler warning: This review reveals the film’s ending, so I urge readers to put it aside till after seeing the film.
  2. Les cahiers du cinema, September 1995, issue, n. 494, p. 22
  3. Les cahiers du cinema, September 1995, issue, n. 494, Frédéric Strauss, pp. 24-6

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