Monday, March 31, 2014

La Cérémonie (1995)


Claude Chabrol's "La Cérémonie" (1995) is a deceptively gentle drama on the surface, but is actually quite alarmingly intense at its core. An adaptation of Ruth Rendell's "A Judgement in Stone", Chabrol's film examines the class conflict with some biting humour and frightening fierceness.

Catherine Lelièvre (Jacqueline Bisset), hires Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) as a new domestic help in her isolated, plush manor. It is not clear at the outset but something is out of place about Sophie, only none so off-the-wall to be particularly discernible. She appears to be a little slow and meek. When she commences her duties though, everything seems to be in order. She is a good cook and she helps maintain the place well. She doesn't say much and keeps to herself, does her work earnestly. 

She is given a nice room of her own with a TV set. Her employer sees to her every need and offers to do a few things to help her out too. Catherine's husband Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel), stepdaughter Melinda (Virginie Ledoyen) and son Gilles (Valentin Merlet) all dwell in the luxurious abode in their rich glory. Sophie has a secret though, a limitation, one she is ashamed of, and keeps it from becoming public knowledge at every step. She somehow manages to find suitable means to keep it under wraps and save herself from humiliation and embarrassment.

Soon Sophie befriends Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a clerk at the local post office, a free spirited but hugely arrogant and ill-mannered, insolent bad apple who very obviously goes through people's mail but doesn't give a damn about it. Their bonding soon develops into a close friendship of two troubled minds that paves way for a cumulative unhealthy mindset that could threaten to disturb the peace of the Lelièvres.

Chabrol's film brings to mind Joseph Losey's solid study of the clash of the classes, "The Servant" (1963) and also that superb early Peter Jackson film "Heavenly Creatures" (1994). Chabrol through his colourful frames in the beginning showcases the glossy abundance of the rich family, yet through further exploration of the members of the family goes to show how self-centered they could be. There are conscious attempts at highlighting the complexes of the classes. 

For instance, when someone points out to Georges that it is not polite to call Sophie a maid, after some discussion, eventually it is decided that one can't call a maid anything but that! An inherent superiority complex is brought out in the manner in which they conclude upon this matter. One pivotal scene satirizes the air of fake sophistication of the family when Georges appears all dapper, dressed in a tuxedo and declares that there are only a few minutes left for a concert, which turns out to be one they would all watch together on the TV set, and not at the actual venue of the performance!

On the flipside, the utterly submissive Sophie probably feels inferior and hence remains aloof and retires to her room when her work is done. Perhaps she also doesn't quite appreciate the patronizing ways of her employers when they offer to get her some help to get her glasses done, provide her driving lessons and equip her with an exclusive TV set for her room.

Only all these feelings don't surface until Sophie meets Jeanne who either provides Sophie an outlet that she needed or inculcates in her, feelings of resentment for the bourgeois who she thinks are too full of themselves, are too proud of their wealth and don't deserve all that grandeur. Both Jeanne and Sophie have a dark past that could raise concerns about their credibility as honest, law-abiding individuals. 

In fact the friendship that develops between the two is catapulted to its closest form in a fantastic scene of friendly blackmail that ensues when the two reveal that they know something about the other and playfully tickle and make fun of each other! In a way, a mutual omerta has been cemented between the two, a foundation that would take their association to another level. Chabrol also keeps these dark histories deliberately ambiguous so as to throw the ball in the viewers' court to interpret the nature of the truth in their own way, based on how they perceive the characters. Once certain facets about these two characters are uncovered in the progression of the story, the mind goes in the rewind mode and many of the initial character interactions, that come off as off-kilter make perfect sense.

The element of blackmail is also used in very extreme ways. On one hand is the near flippant mutual blackmail that strengthens the two women's bond, and on the other there is one that happens to be very serious and directed towards the Lelièvres yet fizzles out when they take it rather casually! It speaks volumes of how the gravity of the potential consequences of such a scenario are perceived differently by different social classes.

As the women get closer, and connect owing to a common stand, their awkward physical closeness makes us suspect lesbian undercurrents that never fully reach their conclusion. One particular scene depicts the two happily watching TV clutching each others' shoulders in a tight embrace, a physical gesture that could qualify for a child-like best-friendship or a sexual attraction, again something that is left equivocal.

A sense of tension resulting from the huge economic divide between the women and the Lelièvres begins to grow as they engage in such conversations as to justify their malevolent attitude towards the rich and also the incidents that scarred them momentarily in their respective pasts. Sophie starts taking liberties like walking out during some guest visits in the house and also inviting Jeanne into the house much to the employers' chagrin. Some harmless liberties taken soon take a graver shape of a spiteful rebellion and leads the film to its climax that we don't quite see coming but still aren't overly oblivious to its ballpark.

While some unconvincing plot developments and a somewhat uncalled for appearance of a deus ex machina are a tad disappointing, "La Cérémonie" still emerges a winner. It is an exemplary work of cinema to depict a friction between classes rather than individuals, and boasts of able and strong lead performances by Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire, taut storytelling and a seemingly simple but definitely layered screenplay. 

Score: 9/10



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