Directed by Claude Chabrol
MK2 Productions/Prokino Filmproduktion
Distributed by New Yorker Films
Movies are such a powerfully manipulative medium that even the lowliest of hack directors has no trouble simulating warmth--all you need is a close-up of imploring eyes, a yellow-gold filter capped over the lens, and a string score soaring in the background. Detachment, on the other hand, is infinitely more difficult to pull off, and only a handful of directors have really managed to do so. Douglas Sirk did it, with his chilly subversion of Hollywood melodramas in the 1950s; so did Stanley Kubrick, with his lofty, lunar satires; and then there's the French master Claude Chabrol, with the domestic thrillers poised delicately between comedy and horror he's been turning out steadily since 1958.
Chabrol's filmography now includes some 50 titles, a high number for a filmmaker in the post-studio era. His output has been earned at a cost; it is reportedly a point of pride for him never to turn down a script he's offered, an ethic he inherited from the Hollywood directors he admired when he wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma. As a result of this catholicism, his work in recent years has wobbled between the high of 1992's Betty, a perverse study in female friendship based on a Georges Simenon story, and the campy low of 1990's Jours Tranquils a Clichy (Quiet Days in Clichy), featuring a hilariously miscast Andrew McCarthy as Henry Miller. Not since his extraordinary films of the late 1960s and early 1970s--La Femme Infidèle (Unfaithful Wife, 1969), Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970), Les Noces rouges (Wedding in Blood, 1973)--has Chabrol created anything as blackly comic, mercurial, and meticulously wrought as La Cérémonie, which opened in Paris last year and has finally arrived in the United States by way of New Yorker Films.
The title of the film refers to the affectionate French nickname for the ritual surrounding the guillotine, a reference that takes on a double edge in the course of the film. The movie itself combines a buttoned-down British suspense novel by Ruth Rendell, A Judgement in Stone, with elements borrowed from Jean Genet's notoriously anarchic The Maids. The story vibrates between repression and release, devoting as much affectionate attention to the principles of social order--which Chabrol designates, in sequence, as television, the family, and the French postal service--as to the two marginal, possibly murderous young women who embody the inevitability of social revolt.
One of those women, Sophie, is played with a saintly gravity by Sandrine Bonnaire; she's a housekeeper who arrives at the handsome country house of the Lelièvre family with a letter of recommendation and no apparent past. Madame Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bisset, speaking an American-inflected French), a former model turned trophy wife, quickly comes to dote on her new find, though her prim husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the owner of a family fish-packing concern, is put off by Sophie's standoffishness, as are the younger members of the household. Twenty-year-old Mélinda (Virginie Ledoyen, in a role filmed just before her breakthrough in ASingle Girl) tries to befriend Sophie but is rebuffed, as is the teen-age Gilles (Valentin Merlet).
Sophie fulfills her chores with dedication if not joy, returning as often as possible to the comfort of the large-screen television the Lelièvres (the name means "hare" in French, a joke Chabrol develops later on) have thoughtfully installed in her room. At the heart of her shyness lie secrets, the most threatening of which is her inability to read. Sophie lives in horror that her employers will discover that she is illiterate--a note of instruction is a major crisis, a shopping list an apocalypse. All Sophie can do is struggle to sound out every letter, matching the marks on the page to an ancient phonetics textbook.
W hen Sophie comes across Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) at the local supermarket, they bond instantaneously. Jeanne advises her on which kind of cheap chocolate to buy, one vice (though not the only) that they have in common. Sophie's discomfort with words is balanced by Jeanne's burbling verbosity--she can neither keep quiet nor stop herself from steaming open the more interesting pieces of mail that pass through her hands in her capacity as the village postmistress. Among these are letters destined for the Lelièvre household; Jeanne has discovered that the first Madame Lelièvre committed suicide, and that the present one is fleeing a notorious past in Paris.
Chabrol gave Huppert one of her great early roles in his 1978 Violette Nozière, in which she played a dutiful daughter of the middle class who poisons her father and mother. She was an opportunistic wartime abortionist in Chabrol's 1988 Une Affairde femmes (Story ofWomen) and (less effectively) the title character in an academic adaptation of Madame Bovary in 1991. In La Cérémonie, Chabrol once again casts her as a conscienceless, almost feral creature, hotblooded this time rather than cold, with an impulsiveness that is the opposite of her usual actressy style. Allowed the one touch of color in the barren, rocky landscape (a red hat she'll occasionally match with a turtleneck sweater), Huppert is the source of the film's energy and suspense.
In storytelling terms, Chabrol doesn't do much in this film beyond setting his characters out and observing them, comparing, for example, their tastes in television (Jeanne and Sophie like variety shows; the Lelièvres like cultural programming, including, at one point, Chabrol's own Les Nocesrouges, which they seem to find irritating) and cuisine (dinner at the big house is an affair of silverware and porcelain; Jeanne gathers wild mushrooms in her skirt and fries them in a pan). But, while little happens on the surface, a deep division is being established--hard though it is to see where it leads. This much we know: Something awful happened to Jeanne's little daughter, something just as bad occurred to Sophie's father, and in neither case could the police prove anything.
Chabrol has amused himself in interviews by describing La Cérémonie as "the last Marxist film," and so it would be if it actually took a stand. But Chabrol is too clever for that; instead, he carefully maps out the power relationships on both sides of the class division. A quietly brilliant opening sequence describes the standoff between Madame Lelièvre, with her social and economic clout, and Sophie, with the sheer force of her eccentricity: First, there's a shot of Sophie darting around through a village square, looking for someone or something; then, a passing truck bounces back a reflection that reveals we are sharing Madame Lelièvre's sinister point of view, as she watches Sophie through the window of a café in which they are about to meet.
T he scene belongs to the bourgeois matron until Sophie enters and her anxious energy takes over the camera. The women's negotiation proceeds through a series of alternating shots that grow ever tighter and more intense; for a moment, the two seem equally matched. But then Chabrol hands the scene to Sophie, granting her mastery over the situation (she knows she has the job, but wants her terms) by way of mastery over the table and the objects on it (tea service, ashtray, letter of recommendation). Where Madame Lelièvre's power belongs to the wider world, Sophie's resides here, on the table top, in the mess and clutter of domesticity.
For Chabrol, the possibility of passion makes middle class life bearable, but the repression of passion makes it possible. Chabrol's great films of the 1960s work through this paradox by way of extreme contrasts between bourgeois security and primal violence. In La FemmeInfidèle, a man impulsively murders his wife's lover and saves his snug marriage, which suggests that violence is essential to the defense of domestic life; in Le Boucher, a refined village schoolteacher allows the thuggish local butcher to carry on with his secret life as a serial killer, which suggests that violence offers the only real escape from a claustrophobic domesticity. In LaCérémonie, it's difficult to say where the violence of domesticity leaves off and the violence done to it begins.
The Lelièvre household turns out to be a tangle of incestuous desires and destructive impulses held barely--if effectively--in check (Monsieur Lelièvre keeps a rack of carefully oiled shotguns in the spare room). Meanwhile, Jeanne and Sophie cement their alliance while collecting used clothing for the needy of the parish, an act of charity they turn into class warfare. Sorting the clothes donated by one pious lady of the parish, the two throw most of them back in the woman's face--rags like these aren't good enough for the poor. In the France of the 1990s, the only images of social stability, the only instruction on how to live, come from television, the church and the state having long since lost their authority. This is a society no longer capable of sweeping revolution, but only of localized twitches and spasms; moments of anarchic self-destruction open up and are quickly closed over. The film's final, appalling act of violence is immediately neutralized by a network of banal coincidences, in which Chabrol pretends to see the hand of God working through the clownish local priest. This is not a majestic divine order asserting itself, but merely an ordinary tidiness, as if God, too, had the instincts of a good housekeeper.
Chabrol's irony has nothing to do with the sarcasm that too often passes under that name in the movies (as in, for example, films by the Coen brothers, with their cardboard characters held up for easy ridicule). Instead of passing judgment, Chabrol suspends it by making tiny calibrations in the point of view, by introducing contrasts and parallels that invite the viewer to stand back and reconsider. For this master player, irony is a game of inches, and seldom has his game been as sharp and true as in this amazing late-career comeback.