Judge Dan Mancini reviews a film from a man often overlooked in the annals of the French New Wave.
On a bien fait.
It's rare that a filmmaker delivers some of his best work almost 40 years into his career, but La Cérémonie is an expertly-crafted domestic suspense tale. None of its details are throw-away. Its sense of pacing and delicately accumulating dread are exquisite. Claude Chabrol was a key figure in the French New Wave, writing criticism in Cahiers du cinema alongside Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and Rivette before beginning his directorial career in 1958 with Le Beau Serge, yet La Cérémonie—made when the director was 64—crackles with the lean vitality of a work by a younger director. It's a smart melding of character study and suspense crowd-pleaser.
In France, Chabrol has suffered a fate similar to Brian De Palma's in the States. His love of Alfred Hitchcock and genre films (he co-authored Hitchcock: the First Forty-Four Films with Eric Rohmer) has given him a reputation as an imitator. Hitchcock's influence on Chabrol is obvious (just as it is on De Palma), but his films are compelling in their own right and dismissing him as poseur is a major mistake. Luckily, a critical reassessment of Chabrol's work seems to be under way, fueled in part by the recent spate of DVD releases.
Facts of the Case
La Cérémonie opens with wealthy art dealer Catherine Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bisset, Day for Night) hiring Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire, Vagabond) as the maid at her estate in isolated Brittany. Sophie's demeanor is reticent and odd because she hides both a personal secret and a violent past. Catherine and her family treat Sophie well, but the girl's budding friendship with Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Player), an embittered postal worker whose class envy is fueled by her own tragic past, sets all the parties on a course of escalating conflict.
How rare that a movie's narrative engine isn't exclusively character or plot. La Cérémonie is a delicately balanced affair in which the plot emerges from the characters even as those characters are shaped and defined by the events in which they participate. Consider the childish, angry, and subversive Jeanne, whose friendship with Sophie is the catalyst for the film's tragic finale. She's a postal worker with a history of rifling through the Lelièvres' mail, a mischief fueled by class jealousy. Her actions set her in conflict with M. Lelièvre (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Ready to Wear), who dislikes her for her spotty past, reckless behavior, and disrespectful attitude. Simultaneously, Jeanne is something like a mirror-image of Sophie. Outwardly aggressive and resentful of her position in life, she draws from the Lelièvres' meek domestic an inner violence that gives action to her own rage, action she would never have taken alone. Plot development, then, is intricately tied to Jeanne's relationships with the other characters, her sparring with M. Lelièvre incompatible with her sympathies toward Sophie.
But Chabrol is too clever to simply define the characters and allow them to drive the plot. Instead, the characters are revealed through the working of plot—we come to know them as they act and are acted upon by the other characters—and their range of choice narrows as the story advances. The effect is a deep sense of fatalism as each character's fate is determined by a combination of his or her own nature and behavior, the natures and behaviors of the other characters, and the social system in which they all function and which shapes them and their behavior. Chabrol creates an incredibly dense and satisfying thriller by ensuring every detail he shows us, every subplot, every word of dialogue emerges from who the characters are, while also pushing them inextricably toward their final fates.
Class is a central feature of Chabrol's films. One of his favorite conceits is portraying the bourgeoisie as insipid buffoons or venal exploiters. La Cérémonie represents a powerful break from form as the director refrains from moralizing. None of the characters—working class or bourgeois—is entirely good or evil. Chabrol is fond of them all, but doesn't blanch from displaying their weaknesses either. As a result, the film's tone is less exuberant than typical of the director, more fatalistic but also more precise and studied in its execution. It's a political film whose depth of character isn't undermined by the simplifying effect of political categories, yet whose politics isn't lost in the rigorous plot mechanics of the thriller.
La Cérémonie feels like the sort of taut and exciting ride that is the province of young filmmakers, but its blending of character, plot, and political thought displays the exquisite control of a more experienced director. Though made in the fourth decade of his career, La Cérémonie might just be Claude Chabrol's finest piece of work.
HVE's DVD presents the film in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, enhanced for widescreen displays. The transfer is clean and film-like, favoring a fine level of grain over the sort of digital enhancements to sharpness that can leave ugly haloing and other artifacts. Color reproduction is natural and beautiful. Audio is a clean and unremarkable Dolby Surround track in French with optional English subtitles.
Supplements include an 18-minute making-of featurette made during the film's production. It features Chabrol himself speaking about the film, its themes, and his approach, and it also offers behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot. It's best to watch the featurette after the film, as certain key plot points are given away. The DVD also houses the film's original theatrical trailer. An insert leaflet contains an insightful and well-written essay by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, as well as a lengthy filmography for Chabrol.
Claude Chabrol may be the forgotten man of the French New Wave, but his films are worth discovering. If you've never ventured into his world of intrigue and danger, La Cérémonie is a great place to start. It's easily one of his most enjoyable and well-executed films, and HVE's beautiful DVD presentation does it justice.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "The Making of La Cérémonie" Featurette
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