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 my attitude toward the rich as being positioned somewhere between ambivalence and indifference; certainly not impressed by wealth, but neither envious nor begrudging of affluence and those who hold money in worshipful esteem. 

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 they consistently vote against their own best interests in order to protect the fortunes of the “haves” (whom they irrationally envision as guardians of the well-being of the “have-nots.”) The historical reality of hoarded and generational 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 American 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 I perceive as a healthy disdain for wealth and the  values of the bourgeoisie.
The post-election fallout of 2016 has left me with a faintly intensified antipathy towards the rich, manifesting itself in ways that 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 demand good service!” type sporting one of those I’d-like-to-speak-to-the-manager haircuts and the look of entitled 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 rivetingly 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 is to diminish the complexity of this layered culture collision. Adapted by Chabrol & Caroline Eliacheff from the 1977 novel A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell; La Cérémonie is a compelling thriller whose revealed mysteries and shifting focus of empathy and identification keep 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. The film's action proceeds steadily and inexorably on an increasingly troubling course of good intentions gone wrong and fates sealed by bad luck. 
The setup is so good, and the pervading atmosphere of dread so strong, watching La Cérémonie was 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. Under the circumstances, it's behavior that could easily be attributed to nerves or an indication of 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 housekeeping problem than the unwitting opening of a Pandora’s Box of trouble.
Infiltration of Ignorance
Georges fails to find the installation of a new multi-channel satellite dish
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—television to a satellite dish. Atrivial 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 and limited to how well she carries out the duties of her job.

But this story is set in the mid-‘90s, when the rich have 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 being patronizing (they offer to pay for Sophie’s driving lessons and prescription glasses). 
If they're 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 (Catherine: “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 superiorityz: Catherine conducts the entire job interview detailing what she needs in a housekeeper, completely forgetting to tell Sophie how much she'll be though earning a living wage was not the first and foremost concern of someone seeking work. Similarly, Catherine treats Sophie's requiring a day off as a personal irritation, with little thought given to Sophie having and needing a life of her own. Meanwhile, Georges, the autocrat, watches Sophie with a coldly judgmental eye, and even Melinda, the college-age champion of the downtrodden, has a telling moment involving the careless disposal of a borrowed handkerchief. 
"I know about you."
That line is repeated frequently in this film obsessed with secrets, gossip, and the past 

But suppose affluence breeds a relative disinterest in the world beyond its immediate environs. In that case, its lack can be said 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, chief 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 gossipy 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 also 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 “wealth 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
American audiences have always been able to absorb narratives about class resentment and social conflict when the downtrodden and oppressed individual depicted are white. Our culture is used to humanizing the white experience, making class-revenge dramas like The ServantGosford ParkThe Maids, and Downton Abbey painless and entertaining.
Conversely, the Black experience is traditionally depicted in American films in ways designed to comfort and reassure white audiences. There's a great deal of national guilt and resistance attached to being asked to understand and empathize with Black rage and resentment, thus, if an American version of La Cérémonie were to be made with Black actors in the Huppert and Bonnaire roles, the result would likely be so explosive as to spearhead a national panic.
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, a title more convenient than accurate) 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 delicate and detailed 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 acts in exponentially better the minute she appears; but Bonnaire’s performance is equally rimpressive. Unfamiliar with the actress, I was so struck by the way she made her 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.

One of the reasons revisiting La Cérémonie proves 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 and more fulfilling than their own. It comments upon the way people hypocritically lean on 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, 2016. I was in the perfect frame of mind to see a film that 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  2009 - 2017


  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."

  4. Hi Ken-
    Thanks for an introduction to Claude Chabrol. It was satisfying to see a film that indeed presented multi-faceted characters in a situation that continually challenges ones allegiances. I expected Huppert to be brilliant (and boy is she!) but you're right that Bonnaire and everyone else is excellent as well. Have you seen Bonnaire in anything else you'd recommend?
    Have you since read the novel? Thanks to your commenters I also wasn't previously aware that "Live Flesh" was from the same writer.

    1. Hi Pete
      Your first Chabrol and you picked a good one! I think it's one of his best, actually, but it deals with theme she visits in several of his films. The cast is indeed superb, and no, I've never seen Bonnaire in anything else. Considering how much I like her int he film, I'm surprised not to think that I've never even sought to see what other films she's appeared in.
      the answer is also no to the question of whether I've read the novel since, and I've never seen LIVE FLESH either (seems my follow-up on this film is a bit lacking).
      I hope this film leads you to check out some of Chabrol's other films. Since writing this I've seen several, and the quality can very widely, but they are all fascinating in their own unique ways.
      Glad I didn't steer you wrong on this one. Thank you very much for commenting, Pete!