Director: Claude Chabrol
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Brittany, France, the present day. Catherine, a middle aged, middle class art gallery manager meets Sophie, a young woman at a cafe – Sophie is applying for the position of housekeeper. Catherine collects Sophie from the rail station a few days later to start work, where Jeanne, the post office clerk cadges a lift. Catherine’s stepdaughter Melinda considers their treatment of Sophie degrading. Sophie avoids using the dishwasher, refuses to take driving lessons, buys glasses with weak lenses and has trouble giving a shopkeeper the correct change for shopping – all hint at the secret of her illiteracy that she has kept hidden from everyone.
When the family are on holiday, Sophie befriends Jeanne who seems to have her own agenda towards the family. Jeanne helps her order the shopping when Catherine leaves a list she can’t read. Jeanne has secretly been reading Georges’ (Catherine’s husband) mail. Georges who suspects this tells Catherine that Jeanne murdered her child many years ago. Sophie sneaks out of Melinda’s birthday party to meet Jeanne. Jeanne has discovered that Sophie’s father died in an arson attack that Sophie was suspected of, whilst Sophie reveals she knows Jeanne’s past. Sophie overhears Melinda telling her boyfriend she is pregnant and Melinda discovers Sophie’s illiteracy. Sophie blackmails her into keeping quiet. Georges fires Sophie when Melinda tells of her blackmail attempts. The family watch Don Giovanni on TV at home one night. Sophie and Jeanne return and kill the entire family. Jeanne dies in a car accident leaving the scene.
Chabrol is considered one of the more mainstream of the Nouvelle Vague film makers; not strictly mentioned in the same revered tones as Godard, Truffaut or Resnais, but he also proved to be the director from this era with the greatest longevity, still making a film a year into his seventies. Considered perhaps the finest of his 1990s cycle and nominated for several Cesars (winning only for Isabelle Huppert’s performance), ‘La Cérémonie’ is based on a 1960s Ruth Rendell mystery, “Judgement in Stone” and has been relocated to 1990s Northwestern France but otherwise remains faithful to the original source.
Referred to by the director in jest as “the last Marxist film”, ‘La Cérémonie’ is a typically caustic exploration of the French middle class, which had been familiar ground for Chabrol for many years (including his best regarded cycle of films from the late 1960s; ‘La Femme Infidele, Le Boucher etc). He presents us with a typical middle class family; Georges a businessman, Catherine an art gallery manager, and Melinda and Gilles, their student children. However the superficial perfection of this family is undermined by an accusation by Jeanne that Georges’ first wife committed suicide, presumably because of the implied infidelity between Georges and Catherine. Like their working class “inferiors”, Jeanne and Sophie, this family also has its secrets that it wishes to hide. Their behaviour towards Sophie is described as patronising by Melinda, who thinks the term “maid” is more degrading than “housekeeper” or “domestic” for instance, and that they treat her like a slave, not talking to her and using television to pacify her. Although their interaction with Sophie is impersonal and a little cold, Chabrol doesn’t strictly demonise his bourgeois characters with as much venom as he had done in previous films. This makes the final act of violence all the more frightening and inexplicable.
The issue of Sophie’s illiteracy is interesting because Chabrol reveals it after leaving several clues; asking Catherine what day it is, her inability to count correct change and so on. It’s only when Catherine asks Sophie to call the grocers for a shopping delivery that her secret is revealed to us. There’s a painful scene when Sophie uses a manual designed for those with illiteracy to make sense of words. Upon learning this secret, it makes such sense to us having seen Sophie refuse seemingly innocuous requests. However although Sophie’s illiteracy is known to us, it’s kept a secret from the family for far longer and is in fact only known when Melinda randomly puts on Sophie’s glasses and realises the lenses are weak. The patronising reaction of Melinda and later her family might reveal why Sophie wouldn’t mention her illiteracy. But on the other hand, isn’t Sophie’s illiteracy a MacGuffin of sorts? It explains her alienation from the family but doesn’t explain her collaboration with Jeanne in their ultimate act of violence. What bonds Sophie and Jeanne is their ambivalent violent pasts, for which neither could be found guilty – Sophie was accused of murdering her father in an arson attack and Jeanne was accused of murdering her mentally deficient child (a rumour Georges is happy to repeat). Note how they joyously embrace when they mutually discover the others’ pasts. It’s at this point that their relationship becomes increasingly disturbing with homicidal potential and the issue of Sophie’s illiteracy becomes almost forgotten, besides being a tool to blackmail Melinda and force her firing.
Even in the moments before the massacre, we’re still uncertain about what’s going to occur. Although Jeanne has been banned from the house (Sophie is almost treated as one of the children) and Sophie sneaks her in, it just seems rebellious, almost adolescent behaviour. The pair vandalise the house and even as they handle the guns, mock-shooting, it still feels harmless. The family, seated together, watching Don Giovanni are blissfully unaware of their own impending destruction, as is Georges when he confronts the pair. Perhaps influenced by Genet’s “The Maids”, based on the real-life Papin sisters murders, Jeanne and Sophie are two women with the potential for murder, which can only be realised fully together. Although there’s an extent of class-based hatred on Jeanne’s part, these murders strike us mostly as being out of left-field. Even more peculiar is the calm reaction; mutually exclaiming “well done” and Sophie shooting a book as if taking a shot at her own illiteracy or the comfort of the bourgeoisie. There’s also the chilling clean-up operation as both agree that nothing can be proved.
Starting with a stunning demonstration of camerawork trained on Sophie’s movements towards the cafe, revealed to be a subjective shot from Catherine’s own point of view, ‘La Cérémonie’ is a chilling account of one woman’s shame and insecurity about her secret that spills into murder. Critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum immediately declared ‘La Cérémonie’ a masterpiece and there’s plenty to recommend; perfect performances by Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, two of France’s finest actresses, a wicked and dark sense of humour and a denouément that confounds our expectations. Chabrol’s subtle and ambivalent approach only increases the tension.