Analysing Claude Chabrol’s sobering study of isolation, motivation and circumstance
There is a difference between wholly expected and glaringly obvious. Reading those words, the margins may seem slight, but with the right presentation the difference can be hugely significant. Most movies that deal with murder are about motives, about twists and turns and shocking revelations. Oftentimes we know the identity of the killer from the offset and bask in the intricacies of a protagonist who struggles to bring them to justice. Other times we’re fishing for red herrings, always second guessing events and looking to outsmart the filmmakers. It’s all a part of the fun.
In Claude Chabrol’s brooding crime drama La Cérémonie, there are no real motives for murder, and there is certainly little fun to be had. Rather than its characters plotting or even discussing the acts they intend to commit, they kind of just fall into them, their atrocities based more on a quiet understanding between two similarly withdrawn members of society. The characters in La Cérémonie are largely unlikable, but they never strike you as worthy of retribution, even when suspicions of past misdeeds creep upon the film’s desolate French country setting like a winter carved in stone. In reality, murders are often abrupt and unexpected, inexplicable to those looking in from the outside, and though there is a clear aggression towards the movie’s victims, you never really allow yourself to consider the sobering nature of the pay-off. You know something bad is going to happen, but you’re wholly unprepared for the bluntness of the execution.
The movie begins with a casual job interview in a city café. Quasi-protagonist Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is taut yet utterly prepared, almost dismissive of her affluent employer Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset), a former model and art dealer who is generally pleasant in spite of a casual haughtiness and ingrained sense of entitlement. Sophie is unflinching and to the point, handling the situation with an unsentimental pragmatism, and Catherine seems impressed by this. She has been looking for a maid for some time and admires her professionalism. She wants someone dutiful who will ultimately commit herself to the shadows.
Almost immediately, a third, seemingly innocuous character is added to the fray in Isabelle Huppert’s Jeanne la postière; a chirpy, ostensibly down-to-earth village local who cadges a ride back to the city, and who is immediately drawn to the strange face in the passenger seat. Huppert has become acting royalty in her native France, mostly ducking mainstream projects for movies of a more challenging variety, and even back in 1995 she was a colossal talent, giving us a character of murky half-shades who refuses to reveal herself. It is a masterful performance that begs many questions about her character’s true nature and whether there is one to be discovered. To begin with, Jeanne comes across as a spirited and quirky soul, but after she is dropped off, Catherine reveals that her husband hates the woman, and Sophie barely reacts, though you get a sense that the two will be seeing much more of each other.
The reason for Sophie’s odd sense of detachment soon becomes clear; the woman is illiterate, a rarity in the mid-’90s for a citizen of the Western world. This revelation hints at a life of withdrawal, but also at a capacity for deception, and we soon realise that she plans to keep her secret at all costs. In Sophie, there is a distinct lack of conventional education as she busies herself with the ironing — an exercise that she admits to enjoying — blankly flaking out in front of a hand-me-down TV in the confines of her room in the attic, one that she is clearly unimpressed with. In fact, she is often unimpressed with her arrangement, harbouring little resentments like a teenager in self-imposed exile. For reasons that will become clear, she is the perfect ally for the oddly antisocial and gossip-hungry Jeanne, who skips a vague line between kooky villager and fiery menace. Bonnaire’s Sophie is dutiful yet staunchly resistant, as practical as an iron and just as searing. It is these similarities, and others, that allow them to establish a friendship of fierce and irrevocable unity.
Sophie la bonne: [to Melinda, after Melinda has discovered that Sophie’s illiterate, and wants to help] If you say a word to anybody, I’ll tell your dad you’re pregnant. If you talk, I’ll tell. I’m not the bitch, you are. Mind your own business.
For the most part, life in the village seems somewhat innocuous. Chabrol’s brooding, borderline-malevolent lens ceaselessly stirs our suspicions, though of what we are supposed to be suspicious it is sometimes difficult to fathom. On the surface, Jeanne’s resentment for the affluent Lelievre family seems to derive from something as simple as class jealousy, a notion that plays right into her hands, but she is especially rancorous towards patriarch George, who seems intent on uncovering something that Jeanne has long-since buried. Jeanne uses her position as a postal clerk to spy on the family’s affairs, a fact that she is sure they will never be able to prove. In Sophie, she sees a window into their everyday lives, and the newcomer she sets out to befriend becomes the ideal pawn in her ongoing feud with a privileged family she seems so determined to disrupt. When together, the two women act like teenagers, committing minor acts of anarchy and gleefully isolating themselves from the community, but on some level it all seems like a test, as if Jeanne is probing to see how far Sophie will go.
Like schoolgirls on the fringes of a classroom, the two form a bond that seems to insulate them from the rest of the community. So reliant on each other’s company are they that their relationship borders on the sensual, but the unspoken element that strengthens that bond hints at two individuals who are better suited to isolation. Both have vague and potentially sinister paths that have somehow been swept under the rug, pasts that they challenge each other on with a glibness that proves nothing short of unsettling. In both instances, events transpired, suspicions were raised, but proof was hard to come by, a factor that will come to define them by the movie’s end.
Jeanne la postière: They’re pathetic. What do they know? They’ve got it all. Their biggest worry is what colour car to buy. Or which cousin stole half the inheritance. I’d be happy with a tenth of what they have. I’d have the life I wanted, instead of just the opposite.
The way Jeanne reveals her past discrepancy is vague yet explicit based on the nature of the act and its victim alone, and she seems delusional to its severity, defiant about the whole ordeal as if the likes of the Lelievres are conspiring against her. Her meetings with Sophie aside, Jeanne is disengaged from a life that seems unfair to her, and the prosperous Lelievres become an antithetical focal point. Rather than their wealth and village status, it is the family’s security and contentedness that seems to rile her. The fact that she extends that resentment to their children is perhaps the biggest hint at her murky past, and when the opportunity for validation finally presents itself, the two are ruthless, unflinching and utterly remorseless. It’s as if the whole grisly ordeal comes naturally to them.
This all comes as quite the shock, but despite the movie’s low-key build and air of normalcy, there is always a sense that something ugly is simmering on the horizon: the isolated setting, the subtle deceit and quiet frustration, all of it tied to the constant shadow of misdeeds that may or not have happened, to evil that may or may not exist. Thanks to Chabrol’s masterful sense of restraint, we never find out for sure, but deeds that are yet to be committed will ultimately give us food for thought. You may doubt their capacity to commit such deeds, you may be unsure of the exact details of past discrepancies, but by the end credits poison clouds will have polluted your imagination and all doubt will have dissipated.
Chabrol has been labelled the French Alfred Hitchcock, and there are many comparisons to be made, both in their movies and from a personal perspective. Both were raised as Catholics and both projected that upbringing onto their works. With movies such as Psycho, Hitch focused on taboo sexuality and hidden perversities. Chabrol turned his back on the church early, something reflected in movies like La Cérémonie, that refuse to present a moral message, giving us events that seem to just occur based on motivation and circumstance. Similarly, the Chabrolian style of filmmaking takes those Hitchcockian elements of murder and suspense, but invariably refrains from pivoting it all on an element of mystery.
La Cérémonie is based on a novel by Ruth Rendell titled A Judgement in Stone, and is one of only a few adaptations that met with the author’s approval. It is easy to see why. There is something distinctly literary about Chabrol’s unsentimental vision. Instead of indulging in the many cinematic fancies that we expect going into a movie about murder, the film deals with character and circumstance and how a murder can occur quite naturally; how simple, everyday resentment can lead to the kind of abhorrent act that is not only reserved for the Lelievre adults, but for their wholly undeserving children, as well as an unborn whose existence the perpetrators are fully aware of. Ultimately, the two bring out the worst in one another, as if their bond acts as validation for something that may otherwise have remained dormant.
This isn’t a premeditated act per se, but once the inevitable juncture arrives there is a clear, almost subconscious logic to events, and when the fatal deed finally transpires it is devastatingly brutal, undertaken with unflinching conviction. For many people, life is a lonely and joyless experience, and all that is needed is a trigger to push them beyond the realms of civility. Once that line is crossed, some are unable to live with what they have committed, but, as is highlighted here, some are completely comfortable with it, so comfortable that they have no qualms about going through with it all over again. The genius of La Cérémonie is that its events occur quite organically, the queer nature of our lead players falling barely into the realms of common decency before leaping headlong into the profoundly macabre.