Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 18 January 2005
Source Home Vision Entertainment DVD
The story of the Papin sisters—two French maids who, in 1933, gouged the eyes out of their employers, bashed the heads of their victims with a hammer until they were unrecognizable, and then retired to their bedroom where they were found naked and embracing each other—has obsessed French writers and filmmakers for decades, much like the case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb inspired American movies as diverse as Compulsion, Rope, Swoon, and Murder by Numbers. The crime of the Papin sisters has been the inspiration for a play, The Maids, by Jean Genet, a film and an opera based on that play, and the films Murderous Maids, Les Abysses, Sister My Sister, La Ligature, and this film, La Cérémonie, which is based on the novel, A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell.
Rendell has been particularly well served by filmmakers adapting her novels. More than fifty theatrical or television films have been based on her work in the last twenty years, including Live Flesh by Pedro Almodóvar. In La Cérémonie, Chabrol—whose latest film, La Demoiselle d’honneur, is also a Rendell adaptation—applies his cool, matter-of-fact style to this story of a folie-à-deux, lulling the audience into a false sense of complacency until the calamitous ending.
Sophie is hired as a maid by the bourgeois family, the Lelièvres, who live in an isolated mansion in the country. The family seems perfectly nice and is willing to extend to Sophie the use of their car and to pay for the glasses she claims to require for driving. Sophie, however, bristles under their ingratiating condescension and rebels in small, unnoticeable ways such as spending the money for her glasses on chocolates and seeking a friendship with a garrulous postal clerk, Jeanne, whom the patriarch of the family charges with spreading malicious rumors. Sophie and Jeanne become fast friends and soon discover of each other that they each were involved in the death of a family member (Jeanne, her daughter and Sophie, her father) yet were never convicted of any crime. When Sophie, with Jeanne’s prodding, becomes emboldened to rebel against her employers just a little more, tragedy tumbles down upon the house.
Apart from the predilection for thrillers he shares with such like-minded directors as Hitchcock and DePalma, Chabrol also often takes as his subject the relationship between the working class and the bourgeoisie. The class struggle is never the primary focus of his films, however, but it often informs the dynamics of the story or provides the catalyst for the action. It is also often expressed in ways other than the simple exchange of capital or the exercise of power that goes along with it. In the case of La Cérémonie, the difference between the classes is demarcated by the choice of each in what they watch on television. In Chabrol’s film, the wealthy (when they watch television at all) watch art films or operas. The working class, exemplified in the film by Sophie, watch “junk” television—game shows, music videos, comedies—and they watch it incessantly. Television plays a central role in the dénouement of the film and the ubiquity of it in Sophie’s life may help to explain the feelings of abject isolation and alienation she feels as, essentially, a paid prisoner in the Lelièvres’ massive house.
Though Chabrol continues to create new films on an almost constant basis (and has done so since 1958), he created a high water mark for his late career with La Cérémonie. His consistently high level of quality filmmaking since then nevertheless makes evident that he does not intend to rest on that film’s reputation.