La Cèrèmonie (1995)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacqueline Bisset
Runtime: 110 minutes
My Rating: 8/10
Sophie is quiet. When she talks, it feels strangely against her nature. Her silence is mysterious and somewhat frightening. Jeanne is more talkative, and seems to be more of a risky, dangerous person. Or maybe she just likes to have fun. Both women seem as if they don’t want to cause trouble – no, they’re just having fun.
Claude Chabrol’s La Cèrèmonie is a film about Sophie, the maid and Jeanne, the postmistress, and how their interactions with each other and a wealthy bourgeois family lead to devastation. Sophie’s quietness and introversion prove to be deceptive; she is keeping a secret. If you look closely at the film, you’ll see each of the main characters are keeping a secret of their own. Not all of them are relevant to the plot, but some of them are pivotal in building and establishing character. Sophie, who works for the Lelievre family, keeps her head down and obeys orders. The family like her, but they sense something odd about her. So do we. In time, her secret is subtly revealed (perceptive viewers may realize what it is mere minutes into the film), but I won’t give it away.
At first, things are going well. Sophie is enjoying her job and the Lelievres are enjoying her company (except for the dubious father, played by veteran actor Jean-Pierre Cassel). However, Sophie’s meetings with the rebellious Jeanne prove problematic for the family, who don’t like her and don’t trust her. And they have good reason not to, as well. Jeanne has an unsavory past, and it seems Sophie has things she would like to forget too. There are some scenes where the women are together and we can sense evil lurking in the frame.
Claude Chabrol was a famous French director who made films during the New Wave and crucially in the after-period consisting of the 70s, 80s and even the 90s (much like Eric Rohmer). He died in 2010 having directed more than sixty films and this is the first time I’ve encountered him on my film-viewing trails. I have to say this film has captured my attention in a way I didn’t expect. It’s a movie that requires the audience to think, yet I could easily see it succeeding with a mainstream audience. It’s an effective drama that never loses its way, and is consistent and surprising. Its main strength is arguably its actors, who bring life and vibrancy to the roles, particularly Isabelle Huppert, who has played a lot of scary or formidable characters in movies but really channels a whole new level of unease here. She smiles a lot, but we never really share her happiness.
The ending (and don’t worry, I won’t spoil it) is astounding, and wonderfully unpredictable. The sense of unease and dread throughout the film (particularly in its second and third acts) really culminates in something amazing and almost unforeseeable. There are moments in the movie when you think it could only end badly, and when something shocking happens, you gasp even though you had a feeling it might happen. I certainly gasped. Then a few seconds later something ten times more shocking happened, and my jaw was permanently frozen open. If there’s one thing Chabrol seems to know how to do, it’s stun his audience, and he really does so exceptionally well here. When the film was over (and it has another twist even during the end credits) I immediately wanted to go back and watch it again, which I will do soon, if only to try and pick up on the subtle hints of suspicious truths hidden in the first and second acts. Claude Chabrol has crafted with La Cèrèmonie a genuinely haunting film which is possibly the best movie of 1995. It utilises its actors to their full potential, and its numerous payoffs are haunting and brilliant.