"...a very French take on crime and punishment."
An Illusion review by Joan Ellis
"La Ceremonie" is Claude Chabrol's very French take on crime and punishment. So alien is it to American sensibilities that it becomes more a cross-cultural puzzle to unravel than a movie to be judged. On one level, this is a suspense movie of the old-fashioned kind: affluent French family with big house hires dutiful, sullen maid. Result: a straight track to terror.
On another, it is a European interpretation of class. If America celebrates its mobility, France is far less likely to encourage the butcher's son to improve his lot. Once a maid, forever a maid. When Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) arrives at the country house of her new employers, she is deposited politely in the bare but adequate room that will define her life. Hers is a barren square in a house of plenty.
Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) treats Sophie with appropriate concern and then resumes life with her family which Sophie will now serve by cooking, cleaning, and ironing. Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) maintains a civil front though he resents her sullen, impenetrable presence. But how can he quarrel with work well done?
Catherine's son by a first marriage, and George's daughter by his, are perfunctorily polite, but detached. The members of this busy family come and go, and in their happy preoccupation with their lives they erase Sophie unintentionally by simply not being affected by her presence.
When Sophie connects with postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), it quickly becomes clear that each harbors a terrible secret. They fuse in what Director Chabrol has described as the phenomenon of "folie a deux:" the chemical reaction of two people who might have remained benign had they not met, but explode into sinister alliance when they do.
Sophie and Jeanne unite in unspeakable cruelty that is less horrifying when it is physical than when it is verbal. They stand outside society with no connection to anyone, laughing at the pain their sadistic behavior causes for people they barely know. Chabrol has created two nihilists who can't even recognize, much less feel any emotion--remorse being the most obvious. The director is far too clever to let anyone in this decent, family fuel Sophie's resentment. Nothing as simple as cause and effect operates here.
At the film's apex, the family settles in to watch a special video of Don Giovanni. At that peaceful and enviable moment, we can barely believe what's going on in the kitchen. The nihilists' bored energy has turned malignant. Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert are so effective in this chilling cautionary tale that at least one viewer hopes never to lay eyes on either of them again.
This particular vengeance has no cause--or does it? There is no crime, or is there? If unintentional detachment is a crime, if affluence is a crime, what is the price to be paid? When the price is exacted, what is the punishment, and who will deliver it? Claude Chabrol takes wicked pleasure in holding our eyes to that fire.
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