Sunday, April 21, 2013

La Cérémonie

LA CÉRÉMONIE                   A     
France  Germany  (112 mi)  1995  d:  Claude Chabrol 

LA CÉRÉMONIE (1995) is among Chabrol’s most critically acclaimed films and greeted with such unbridled enthusiasm that Les Cahiers du Cinéma suggested Chabrol may be France’s greatest filmmaker, an extremely ironic observation coming on the heels of Chabrol, at least in America, being the most neglected filmmaker of the French New Wave, where Rivette, Rohmer, Godard, and Truffaut have all been anointed to the head of the class at some point in their careers, but never Chabrol.  This assessment is largely based on a lack of innovation in the world or cinema, where Chabrol, often seen in the Hitchcock thriller mold, may be viewed as the most commercial of the bunch.  Perhaps as significant, while they all wrote regularly for the film magazine, Chabrol less memorably, as his critical comments were less strident and opinionated, never going as far out on a limb as the others.  Chabrol, along with Godard, who has seemingly retreated into the video milieu, have been the most prolific directors, where this is the 46th film of 54 features.  Adapted from British suspense writer Ruth Rendel’s 1977 novel A Judgement in Stone, one of the fascinating elements is the title change, which suggests the celebration of a wedding or an awards banquet, but instead it refers to a French nickname for the guillotine, their historical version of the electric chair, as it is the ritual device used to execute prisoners.  And true to its title, this is a sharply written comic satire on class divisions and the principles of social order, a domestic thriller standing somewhere between comedy and horror, where it’s impossible not to recall Jean Genet’s One Act play The Maids, loosely based upon the infamous Papin sisters, though both Genet and Chabrol depart from historical realism, where Chabrol resorts to a meticulous recreation of the banal habits and routines of everyday bourgeois life, shown in minimalist detail.  

The unique power of this film is the fascinating relationship that develops between two of the finest and most eccentric actresses in French history, the pairing of Isabelle Huppert, nothing short of sensational as Jeanne, a volatile and acid-tongued postal clerk, and the equally enthralling Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, the reserved and tight-lipped maid of the upscale Lelièvre family living in an immense chateau in Brittany where Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset), a former model turned trophy wife, gives the orders.  She dotes on her authoritative, Mozart loving husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel), owner of the family business, while running her own art gallery.  The spoiled children are twenty-year old Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) and teenage Gilles (Valentin Merlet), all basically wrapped up in their own lives, a typically aloof and condescending bourgeois household.  When the kids try to get closer to Sophie, claiming their mom treats her like a robot ordering her around, she quickly rebuffs them, showing no social interest, retreating to her room where she prefers watching mindless television shows.  Nonetheless, Sophie keeps the house spotless, which puts Catherine at ease, but the rest of the family remain skeptical at her utter indifference, showing no outside interests or social skills.  She does hear about Jeanne from the outraged father who believes she is opening their mail and resealing it before delivery, an act that just galls him, as he refuses to allow anyone else to undermine his authority. Sophie fulfills her chores perfectly, but grows ghastly pale when she receives written shopping instructions, deathly afraid the family will find out her closest held secret, the fact that she is illiterate.  When she runs across Jeanne for the first time in the supermarket, her verbal reticence is matched by Jeanne’s nonstop chatter, where she is quickly baled out of the jam while Jeanne gives her all kinds of shopping tips.  The two lower class women become instant friends, growing even closer when both share dark secrets, as Jeanne may have accidentally killed her own baby, while Sophie implies she might have murdered her own father in an arson incident.  In both cases there as insufficient evidence to prosecute. 

Once they become friends, they’re inseparable, like long lost sisters, where Jeanne spews cruel gossip with regularity, showing nothing but contempt and disdain for the upper classes, literally mocking Catherine for asking Sophie to work on an off day for a birthday party for Melinda, expecting the hired help to be available at a moment’s notice, even though Sophie informed her ahead of time that she was doing volunteer work at the church with Jeanne.  Sophie helps set up the appetizers before leaving for church, to Catherine’s dismay, finding her attitude troubling.  At the church, women pick through the donated clothes, separating the usable from the worn out, where Jeanne can’t believe what junk rich people donate, using the church as a garbage disposal, as most of what they find is unusable.  Their rude mockery grows so excessive and out of control that eventually the priest has to ask them to leave, as they’re humiliating the donors.  To Sophie and Jeanne, they’re just being honest, saying what must be said, where Sophie’s friendship seems to empower Jeanne to be even more wild and outspoken, which in turn opens up Sophie as well, where isolated, they feel powerless and alone, but together they’re an unstoppable force, perfectly expressed when they’re watching television together like sorority sisters, arms around each other, where ironically they’re watching Michel Piccoli and Stéphane Audran in Chabrol’s earlier film WEDDING IN BLOOD (1973).  The Lelièvre family finds Sophie’s behavior so alarming they give her a week’s notice, which only further infuriorates Jeanne who bristles with anger, sick of the rich always having their way, always telling others what to do.  When they return to the estate to pick up Sophie’s things, the Lelièvre’s are sitting calmly on the sofa recording a televised production of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, where a notorious liar and seducer of women is sent to Hell and damnation.  Actually the Mozart opera of choice where the lower class servants sarcastically make fun of the idyll rich is The Marriage of Figaro, literally leading them around like puppets on a string.  Nonetheless, Chabrol uses this setting to bring it all to a head, leaving nothing to the imagination, where this strange pair of women exacts justice, a strange word that has a different connotation in the larger cosmos, as the universe exacts its own, seen at work over the end credits, where the ultimate finale doesn’t occur until the final credit has run.            

There is a creepy and seductive nature to this strange pair of women, with erotic lesbian undertones to their developing intimacy, where Jeanne gleefully offers plentiful kisses all over Sophie’s cheeks, where implied sex is intertwined with their growing anarchistic liberation, where they defy all moral boundaries.  While it begins innocently enough giggling and tickling one another on the bed, it’s telling that it takes both of them together to rise to the level of class revolt, becoming a lethal pair, while individually they are harmless, as neither would have the strength to carry out their fateful rebellion.  After the deed is done, Jeanne proudly comments to Sophie, “On a bien fait (We have done well),” as if they’ve finally risen to the occasion and stood up to the higher classes, like some kind of Mother Courage Marxist spectacle.  Their friendship, however, is toxic, like a time bomb waiting to go off, where the results can only be disastrous.  Together they represent an ultimate horror, driven by Jeanne’s calamitous sense of danger, unease and restlessness, becoming a collective madness. 

It was chilling to see this film about this classic murderous pair on the day following the Boston terrorist fiasco, where the Tsarnaev brothers, 26-year old Tamerlan and his 19-year old brother Dzhokhar, seem more like Jeanne and Sophie and the Columbine killers than al Qaida.  A pair of brothers is a classic dyad scenario, like Bonnie and Clyde, Leopold and Loeb, and the Washington D.C. snipers, a twisted relationship that plays out very differently than a lone gunman.  Mass killers are mostly *not* loners or outcasts, and the Columbine killers were neither.  Killer dyads are more consistent with a dominant, charismatic leader and a submissive follower, where the leader is often a sadistic psychopath.  Dyads usually contain contrasting personalities, as often there is a significant age difference, where a psychopathic killer generally does not hook up with another psychopath, nor do depressive pairs work well together.  Columbine was a perfect illustration of a classic dyad, where a psychopath like Eric Harris craved excitement and had difficulty sustaining it, but needed Dylan Klebold following his every move with adulation.  Who knew this film would recall the Columbine massacre and the Boston Marathon bombings?   

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