It's my great misfortune to have discovered Claude Chabrol's films just after he passed away. This means that, once again, I find myself smitten with a ghost. Chabrol is known as the French Hitchcock, and that's pretty apt, really. Much like Hitchcock, Chabrol uses thrillers as a psychological vessel, but with a characteristic that is definitively French. His movies are about feeling more than action, situation more than plot. Hitchcock had the Macguffin; Chabrol needs no excuse to engage in his scenarios of tension. I can't really claim to know much about Chabrol's filmography; I've only just begin. Likewise, I'm no master on Hitchcock, just a would-be diver dipping my toes in the pool. So, I should stick to those films I do know, one of which is Chabrol's 1995 film, La Ceremonie, a truly haunting portrait of class division and resentment. In La Ceremonie, the relationship of a family and their maid slowly becomes toxic, leading to a finale of sudden and irrevocable violence. This film is less of a thriller than a mystery. There is no central puzzle to unravel; the mystery lies in the hearts of the characters themselves.
Chabrol has an uncanny way of making tensions between his characters palpable, with no small amount of help from the impeccable actresses he casts in this film. Despite her near muteness, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) brims with grim energy. Her large, expressive eyes often give her the bearing of a small animal. The weight of her secret illiteracy has confined her to a cagey, invisible life. When she is questioned, her answer is generally noncommittal or indirect. Despite her shadowy existence, she attracts the attention of Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a postal worker who was accused, but never charged, with the death of her infant daughter. Jeanne quickly seems to sense potential in Sophie. The ever wonderful Huppert makes accessible the anger that lurks behind Jeanne's blase anecdotes and small gestures. Both women have had notably painful lives because of their lack of resources. As the Lelievre family reflects the opposite spectrum back at them, they become increasingly resentful.
The Lelievre house forms the setting for the majority of the film. Its labyrinthine structure seems vast, especially because you never seem to see the end of it. Early on, Jeanne asks Sophie to give her a tour of the house, in a scene that is impishly reprised at the end of the film. It seems to unfold infinitely. Despite its purported vastness, there is a distinct sense of claustrophobia within the narrow hallways and geometric rooms. Most importantly, there are definite boundaries between Sophie's spaces and those of the family. Sophie and the Lelievres are rarely in the same space. As Sophie cleans the table, the Lelievre's speak audibly about her from the next room. In the final scene, we finally witness as Sophie crosses this boundary, in one fluid back tracking shot.
The Lelievre family could be called bourgeoisie. Though they seem to be good enough people, they are totally oblivious to their privilege, even while basking in the fruits of it. Gradually, they become a symbol of the insular rich, for whom privilege is too close to be seen. Though the Lelievre's demands are never exactly unreasonable, small actions make their entitlement clear. For example, the mother hosts a birthday party for her daughter, but grows unduly dismayed when Sophie leaves before it is over, despite having given her permission to go. It is no help that Sophie has carefully prepared everything, and has it neatly laid out. As a family, the Lelievres are best represented by their daughter, Melinda, who speaks of socialist ideas that are byproducts of an expensive education, rather than personal experience. Still, she manages to be ignorant of the ways in which she exploits Sophie, like a bossy child, holding an implicit power over her whenever they are in a room together. The power she has received through her education and upbringing give the women reason to despise her the most.
Jeanne projects on odd sort of gravity on Sophie, who is drawn in by her natural charisma, and irreverence. Jeanne's initial motivation for befriending Sophie is slightly ambiguous. It soon becomes clear, however, that she is simply driven by Sophie's proximity to a family she is intensely curious about. Often, Jeanne gossips about the Lelievres as if they were celebrities, unwittingly revealing her fascination with them. This fascination, as it becomes apparent, is intertwined with a malignant envy. Jeanne and Sophie eventually develop a deep, sisterly affection for one another, as they discover a closeness born of common experience.
Sophie begins to rebel against the family increasingly, in small ways. These indiscretions gradually build to her termination. Unlike in, perhaps, an American version of this film, Sophie's and Jeanne's complaints against the Lelievre family often seem almost unfair. It is arguable whether they deserve to be the object of such hatred. American movies generally have heroes and villains. This movie has neither, and I often found myself wondering, as in real life, if actions by both sides were misconstrued, or taken out of context. It is Chabrol's even handed treatment of the characters that inevitably makes the film so chilling. So much of this film is in subtext, ambiguities between the dialogue and what the characters actually express with their actions. I find this discrepancy interesting, because the the notion of evidence, or proof of guilt becomes a motif throughout the film. Both Sophie and Jeanne were acquitted from crimes due to lack of it.
Later, Sophie and Jeanne enter the Lelievre house to gather Sophie's things. Meanwhile, the family watches Don Giovanni in the next room. While the Lelievres fall asleep to the opera, Sophie and Jeanne play with Mr. Lelievre's hunting rifles in the maids quarters, moving from room to room as they shadow their tour from earlier in the film. What follows is a carefully choreographed flirtation, as the women casually egg each other on, realizing simultaneously what has been coming all along, somehow, what must happen. Beginning with playful vandalism, and ending with an eruption of the violence that has been building within them, the tension builds to a dark, explosive conclusion.
The film strikes its most beautiful note as the credits roll, and yet another unexpected twist unveils itself. Within La Ceremonie are infinite subtleties that will unveil themselves through each viewing. I watched it twice in the space of just a few days, and it's been on my mind ever since. in La Ceremonie, some evils exist for which proof is a tricky thing to come by--prejudice, and intent, for instance. You can prove a word was said, but not what was meant by it. The question is, do these evils deserve punishment, too?
I robbed the images from Brandon's Movie Memory, where there is also some good writing on this brilliant movie.