Title: La Cérémonie
Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jacqueline Bisset
Synopsis: Sophie (Bonnaire) is hired as a maid by a wealthy family in the country. Despite her quiet demeanor and perfectionist veneer, she is harboring a secret. Meanwhile, the much more carefree and outspoken postmaster Jeanne (Huppert) becomes friends with Sophie, much to the disapproval of Sophie’s employers since they perceive Jeanne’s free-spirited nature as a negative influence.
Critique: We don’t often think of Chabrol as a “political” filmmaker but, in all actuality, the late master of suspense’s work has a roiling undercurrent of political commentary going as far back as his masterful 1966 WWII thriller Line of Demarcation (1966) and the sketchy terrorist cell that was at the heart of his 1974 film Nada. There was the more forgettable outing that was Blood of Others, the more successful Huppert vehicle Story of Women, the assemblage documentary of footage from Nazi-occupied France that was Eye of Vichy – Chabrol was no stranger to the murky world of wartime policies, the mechanics of his nation, and its role in the overall historical landscape.
But La Cérémonie takes us away from the recognizable stun of WWII regalia to contemporary France and, in the Chabrolian tradition, we’re in the country, a provincial area, the most identifiable setting for the director. Of course, ever the master of sly manipulation he is ratcheting up the suspense, we have Sandrine Bonnaire, an illiterate maid for a wealthy family; is she a con artist, will there be an affair, a crime of passion, a murder, maybe this maid is a lost relative, a neglected child from a forbidden tryst whose very presence could out a massive scandal for her bourgeois employers? If this sounds far-out, far-fetched or culled from the pages of a soap opera, this is the territory that Chabrol excels in, but La Cérémonie; he takes us further than he has before, his narratives have the cunning precision and icy execution of none other than Hitchcock himself. Here, La Cérémonie has the subtle ascension that will likely have any invested viewer climbing the walls but the denouncement has the misanthropic sting of Terrence Malick’s Badlands paired with Michael Haneke’s provocative observations of motiveless murder.
Sparing the details of the film’s finale (spoilers) we find ourselves presented to a cold but affecting indictment of bourgeois classicism. Or is Chabrol sidestepping mystery for an opportunity to cast a look at social alienation and contemporary ennui? Judge for yourself. The best movies make you think and Chabrol made a lot of them.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the duration of this column, I’ve been championing the work of Claude Chabrol, rooting for more of his films to get the Criterion treatment. It would be great to see previously mentioned movies from the director such as This Man Must Die (CP#46) and Le Boucher (CP#111) there’s nothing aside from crossed fingers to go on for their inclusion. However, the case for La Cérémonie becoming a Criterion entry is much more likely. As is the case for many films that crossed the streams from Criterion’s Hulu channel to Filmstruck (A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love, Blind Chance, The Merchant of Four Seasons) La Cérémonie, along with the director’s Masques, has been dialed into the Criterion streaming contingent for years now.