Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE CEREMONY (La Cérémonie ) 1995

The rich are always with us. And if you’re a resident of Los Angeles, the acute inevitability of their presence and ubiquitous cultural sway is perhaps even more keenly felt than anywhere else. I’ve always envisioned myself as positioned somewhere between ambivalence and indifference when it comes to the rich; certainly not impressed by them, but neither envious nor begrudging of affluence in those for whom it holds some level of significance.

Of course, this moderate stance has shifted considerably amidst today’s political climate of wealth as god, legitimizer of systemic cruelty, and validate of all human worth. America has always harbored a rather twisted attitude towards the well-to-do; the poor being so enamored of the wealthy that in elections they consistently vote against their own best interests, unaccountably protective of the fortunes of the “haves” whom they irrationally see as guardians of the well-being of the “have-nots.” The in-your-face, historical reality of immovable wealth in America has never proved much of a match for the durability of people’s belief in the myth of the American Dream.
More to my liking and closer to my own feelings has been the attitude towards the rich reflected in European films. While America movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Great Gatsby can’t seem to make up their minds as to whether they’re repulsed or enthralled by rapacious capitalism; European directors like Luis Buñuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard share a singular lack of ambivalence on the topic. Often depicting the rich as parasitic exploiters casually unaware/unconcerned with the plight of others, these directors harbor what is to me a healthy (if not refreshing) disdain for wealth and the bourgeoisie.

Post-election fallout has left me with a faintly intensified antipathy towards the rich, manifesting itself in ways which are exasperatingly reactive and frustratingly internal. For example, I’ve caught myself eye-rolling to the point of strain every time I find myself witness to yet another retail establishment outburst by some “I’m used to good service!” type sporting one of those I’d-like-to-speak-to-the-manager haircuts and a look of unearned righteousness.
The only truly external reaction to the wealthy I exhibit—and mind you, I’m bearing no pride in confessing this—is one both petty and passive-aggressive. And therefore, enormously gratifying. My shame is that I’m one of those L.A. drivers more than happy to allow cars to merge and cut in on the freeway…unless I see it’s a luxury automobile: in which case, I tend to let Herr Mercedes and Monsieur Maserati fend for themselves.

Whatever name one attributes to these feelings, however irrational, whatever their degree of latency or full-blown realization; these emotions represent the seeds of festering resentment and contempt at the center of Claude Chabrol’s masterful (and often agonizingly intense) psychological thriller La Cérémonie.
Isabelle Huppert as Jeanne
Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie Bonhomme
Jacqueline Bisset as Catherine Lelievre
Jean-Pierre Cassel as Georges Lelievre
Virginie Ledoyen as Melinda Lelievre
In truth, to describe La Cérémonie as a psychological thriller or even frame its narrative in terms of mere class warfare seems somehow to diminish the complexity of the layers of intense emotional and social collision woven into this well-constructed drama with overtones of black comedy. Adapted by Chabrol & Caroline Eliacheff from the 1977 novel A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell; La Cérémonie is a bracingly easy-to-immerse-oneself-in thriller of culture, class, character, and circumstance. A film whose shifting focus of empathy and identification keeps the viewer ever on their guard and off balance.

La Cérémonie is a cause-and-effect tragedy in which characters who should never meet are nevertheless brought together by chance and fateful incident (past and present) that cruelly conspire to bring about the most dreaded of outcomes. As though on a piteously preordained course doomed to inevitable collision, these individuals, benign in isolation, become combustible when merged.
The setup is so good, the sense that none of this is going to end well, so strong; I found watching La Cérémonie to be like assembling a jigsaw picture puzzle whose final image you really don’t want to see.
And indeed, from its initial scenes (which on repeat viewing reveal themselves to be chock full of telltale clues and hints) La Cérémonie establishes itself as a puzzle.

As the film opens, wealthy Catherine Lelièvre (Bisset), chic manager of an art gallery and wife of industrialist Georges Lelièvre (Cassel), is interviewing a potential live-in housekeeper. The applicant, one Sophie Bonhomme (Bonnaire) is a wan, taciturn type who, while suitably experienced, nevertheless comes across as slightly odd. There’s something subtly out-of-step about her behavior. Behavior which, under the circumstances, could easily be attributed to nerves or a sign of a blunt efficiency.
Still, there’s a hint of something constrained and impervious in Sophie’s manner (the questions she asks, the halting vagueness of her responses) that makes her eventual engagement by the Lelièvres (rounding out the household: teenage Gilles and college-age Melinda, only there on weekends) feel less like the longed-for solution to a domestic problem than the unwitting opening of a Pandora’s Box of trouble.
Georges fails to find the new TV to be as enthralling as stepson Gilles (Valentin Merlet)

Sophie’s entrance to the Lelièvre household, a spacious mansion in the secluded French countryside, coincides with the hooking up of an enormous—by 1995 standards—TV; a trivial detail Chabrol wryly uses as juxtaposed commentary. The acquisition of this time-killing, emotion-benumbing “100 channels of nothing” device augers a threat as insidious and destructive to this erudite, cultured family as the arrival of their detached and uncurious housekeeper.
Once ensconced, Sophie proves a tireless worker, albeit emotionally undemonstrative and idiosyncratic in oddly discomfiting ways. I.e., she refuses to use the dishwasher, keeps the house immaculate save for the books in the library, and her spare hours are spent indulging in sweets and staring transfixed at the small TV in her room. In another time, Sophie’s remote demeanor would be a non-issue, her status as servant unequivocally branding her “beneath” her employers; the significance of her existence determined by how well she carries out the duties of her job.

But this takes place in the mid- ‘90s, a time by which the rich had mastered the subtle art of treating the hired help as though they are members of the family while still making abundantly clear that by no means are they actually equals. 
Like a vampire at the portal of a church, Sophie finds herself unable to enter the family's library

Given Chabrol’s traditional unsympathetic depiction of the bourgeoisie, the Lelièvres appear at first to be implicated in this tale of suppressed class warfare; but they are shown to be an affectionate, kind, and intelligent family (the sound of their name even suggesting “book”). They’re the type of aware, well-intentioned rich folk who debate over what to call the housekeeper (maid, servant, domestic) and grapple with the fine line between being caring and patronizing (they offer to pay for Sophie’s driving lessons and prescription glasses). 
If guilty of anything, it’s a kind of selective, blithe obliviousness characteristic of privileged classes whose wealth affords the luxury of a blinkered world-view (“You know I don’t read the papers”), and a casual self-centeredness that puts their personal concerns before consideration of others.

There are several marvelous moments when the Lelièvres exhibit near-imperceptible displays of class superiority (just like they happen in real life): Catherine conducts the entire job interview detailing what she needs in a housekeeper, completely forgetting to tell Sophie how much she'll be paid. Similarly, she treats Sophie's requiring a day off as more of an irritation than a human necessity. Georges, the autocrat, watches Sophie with a coldly judgmental eye. And even Melinda, the champion of the downtrodden, has a telling moment with a borrowed handkerchief. 
"I know about you."
That line is repeated frequently in this film about secrets, gossip, and the past 
But if affluence breeds a relative disinterest in the world beyond its immediate environs, its lack seems to foster a fixation on the comings and goings of the moneyed set that whiplashes between overawed captivation and bilious resentment.

This attitude is exemplified by Jeanne (Huppert), the town postmistress, gossip, and all-around troublemaking busybody who insinuates herself into the closed-off life of Sophie. Initially drawn to one another out of mutual exploitation, then ultimately, a shared, intuitively divined psychosis; the bonding of these women of no consequence evolves (a la Shelly Duvall & Sissy Spacek in 3 Women) into the pair becoming something together that neither could be on their own.

Feeding off of one another—Sophie supplying Jeanne with gossip access to the Lelièvre family, for whom she bears a grudge for real and imagined slights; Jeanne giving voice and rebellious action to Sophie’s suppressed disaffection—they are mob mentality in microcosm and cultural catharsis at its most horrific.

I’m mad about good thrillers, but with La Cérémonie I’ve hit the trifecta. It’s a rollicking good suspenser that keeps tightening the screws of tension with each scene and unexpected reveal; it’s an unusually perceptive character drama and dark-hued study in abnormal psychology; and lastly, it’s a sharp-toothed, sinister social critique.

When La Cérémonie was released in 1995, TV’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that long-running, vomitous exercise in wealth fetishism, was in its 11th and final season. I never could figure out who the audience for that show was, but a little bit of Chabrol cynicism was the perfect antidote for America’s steady diet of “rich is good!” mythologizing (which, perversely enough, goes head-to-head with that other American myth: the one devoted to reassuring the poor and unsophisticated they are happier and better off that way). 
Like One of The Family
Movies about lower-class resentment play well in America only if they are about white characters like Norma Ray and Karen Silkwood. Black characters and other people of color traditionally exist in films to reassure white audiences, not scare them. We here in the States have always been able to absorb European narratives that humanize the lower classes because the rebellious underlings in The Servant, Gosford Park, The Maids, and Downton Abbey are white.

The majority of household staff in well-to-do U.S. homes are people of color, but America has such an uneasy relationship with its racism and unacknowledged class systems (he says, to the surprise of no one) that when it comes to the depiction of class tension, we need to feed ourselves nonthreatening pablum like The Help. Therefore, because it would require audiences to recognize and humanize the suffering of people we systemically deem invisible; an American version of a film like La Cérémonie is virtually unimaginable.
The Bane of the Bourgeois: Service Worker Insolence
Georges is convinced Jeanne opens his family's mail 

Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers are so well-constructed that I tend to overlook how often I find his casting choices to be a tad on the bland side (Robert Cummings? Farley Granger? Diane Baker?) and the acting variable. Claude Chabrol (dubbed the French Hitchcock) has well-constructed films, too, but he also had a gift for getting the best out of actors. So much so that even his weaker efforts (Masques, Ten Days Wonder) are salvaged by their outstanding and sensitive performances. 
Le Boucher (1970) may be a favorite Chabrol film, but a very close second is the more accessible La Cérémonie; a film distinguished by its intelligent screenplay, deftly handled dramatic tension, and superlative cast.
In 1974 Cassel and Bisset co-starred in Murder on the Orient Express  
and in 1991 (rather presciently) a comedy TV-movie titled The Maid
Jacqueline Bisset has grown more beautiful with age, and in this (my first time seeing her in a French language film) she gives an aware performance that fits like a glove with that of the always excellent Jean-Pierre Cassel. The members of the Lelièvre family are depicted in a natural way, devoid of caricature, making their subtle hypocrisies as keenly felt as the genuine intimacy and affection they share.
Isabelle Huppert appeared in seven of Claude Chabrol's films.
Chabrol died in 2010 at the age of 80

But the obvious standouts are Isabelle Huppert (whose gift is making us interested in, and maybe even understand, characters we’d otherwise find reprehensible), and Sandrine Bonnaire. First off, Huppert is a force of nature and makes any film she appears in exponentially better the minute she appears; but Bonnaire’s performance is another revelation. Unfamiliar with the actress, I was so struck by the way she made a character’s silences so eloquent. Her Sophie carries around a lifetime of humiliations she struggles to conceal, some horrific, others pitiable; but she’s positively chilling in her lack of self-pity. Also in her conveyance of the kind of pent-up anger evident in certain kinds of children who, when confronted with things they don’t understand or can’t access, resort to a kind of self-protective belligerence.

Looking over my recent posts, I see that La Cérémonie is the tenth thriller I’ve written about since the start of the year. And on my own, I’ve watched all of four horror movies in August alone. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I’ve always held that in times of stress, horror films, suspense thrillers, and psychodramas offer a great outlet for cathartic release.
Scary movies seem to fill an anxiety void by providing an environment where one can give vent to bottled up tensions and feelings of distress that in real life have no recourse or resolution.
One of the reasons revisiting La Cérémonie proved so gratifying to me is because it feels like a curiously relevant movie in our current social climate. The film touches on themes like anti-intellectualism and the baseless fear of the unfamiliar. It brushes against the kind of resentful envy you read about in this day of social media, where people preoccupy themselves with the lives of others, only to come to resent those very lives they imagine to be happier than their own. It looks at the superficial balm of religion, and explores the futility of trying to escape one’s past.

The film makes reference to how easily we pacify ourselves with television. We don’t learn anything from it, we don’t really watch it so much as lose ourselves in it. All it asks for is our undivided attention, and in exchange it helps benumb us to the pain of thinking, remembering, or feeling.
But mostly La Cérémonie (apparently an archaic term for the act of executing someone for a capital crime) offers an image of insanity that is infinitely saner than the world I’ve been waking up to since November 8th. I was in the perfect frame of mind to see a film which framed the rich in a context of inconsequence, impotence, and unwitting perniciousness. I needed the horror. And while Chabrol films it all ambiguously and with a great deal of anticipation and élan, the ultimate effect of this remarkable thriller was like shock treatment. It jolted me so that I actually felt relaxed for the first time in ages.

“There are many things I find loathsome in men, but least of all the evil within them.”

Jacqueline Bisset & Jean-Pierre Cassel / 1974  and 1995
Murder on the Orient Express / Le Ceremonie

  Virginie Ledoyen & Isabelle Huppert reunited in Francois Ozon's 8 Women (2002)

Themes similar to those in Le Ceremonie can be found in Jean Genet's The Maids.
The 1975 film adaptation starred Glenda Jackson and Susannah York

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Oh, I caught Le Ceremonie when it was first released and I remember being shocked at the ending and leaving the theater quite shaken. I adore Isabelle Huppert, my absolute favorite French actress (living) and, in fact, just watched "Merci pour le chocolate," which must have been one of Chabrol's last films, a couple of weeks ago (compelling if nowhere near as riveting as Le Ceremonie, but with a fascinating performance by Huppert, who seems unable to give any other kind). As always, Ken, a marvelous review and I love the way you contextualize your experience of the film in (within?) today's fraught political landscape. Bravo.

    1. Hi Peter!
      I too think Huppert is one of the best actresses around.After a rocky start with Preminger's "Rosebud", she just seems to get better and better. I've been on a kind of Chabrol kick of late, so I'm looking forward to seeing the film which marked her final collaboration with the director.
      This film was quite the shocker for me, too, which is why, against my usual policy of discussing a film as though the reader has already seen it, I kept spoilers to a minimum. My enjoyment of this film was heightened by knowing so little about it.
      Thank you for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. "La Ceremonie," once the initial aftershocks have subsided, really does contain a great deal of food for thought content applicable to today's social unease. Much appreciated!

  2. This is one of my all-time favorites and a faithful adaptation of Rendell's icy novel.
    The book is famous in crime fiction circles for "giving away the ending" in the first sentence, but then using that revelation to generate tremendous suspense.
    I met and interviewed Rendell at a mystery writer's conference (in Las Vegas of all places) a decade ago and she said this was far and away the best film ever made from one of her books (apparently there was an earlier, terrible British version with Rita Tushingham as the maid - Rendell loathed that one).
    She told me it was interesting to her that the best adaptations were the ones made by non-Brits in foreign languages. She liked Almodovar's "Live Flesh" and another French adaptation "The Bridesmaid."
    Reading your wonderful analysis makes me want to pull out the DVD and watch the movie again tonight.

    1. Hi Joe
      I really have to check out the book now. I think you referenced it recently on Twitter and it reminded me how I've always been intrigued by how the book formulates the mystery (disclosure at the outset to create suspense) and the different approach taken by this rather brilliant adaptation.
      Thanks for sharing the information regarding Rendell's favorable response to this film. Very enlightening. In fact, I think you have sparked my interest in seeking out a novel of two of hers, for I had no idea "Live Flesh" was adapted from her work.
      You've often been responsible for my discovering many "new" favorites, your vast knowledge of film and literature - plus a somewhat similar sensibility in what we like - always leading me to books and films I might not otherwise have discovered. Thanks for reading this and commenting!

  3. I won't quote it here, but the opening sentence of A JUDGMENT IN STONE is considered one of the best in mystery fiction. I defy anyone to read it and NOT want to continue reading the book.

    1. Hi Deb
      I agree! It is a great line. Reminding me of the first line in Carson MucCullers' "Reflections in a Golden Eye."
      As both you and Joe cite, it is apparently a well-known, almost notorious sentence in crime fiction. Startling and intriguing in"giving away" the ending, but creating a different kind of reverse-suspense.
      One day I will for sure check out the novel, but I am thrilled Chabrol did not duplicate this literary device with the film adaptation. Because of the deft adaptation of the screenplay, my first encounter with "Le Cerominie" left with a reaction identical to that noted by Peter Lappin above: "quite shaken."