La Cérémonie Review
It would appear that the novels of Ruth Rendell serve auteur cinema especially well. Whilst the UK TV adaptations, or such minor efforts as the Canadian take on A Judgement in Stone (the source for this particular venture) with Rita Tushingham, have been lukewarm at best, the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, Claude Miller and Claude Chabrol have turned in some of their best works courtesy of the British author. Indeed, Almodóvar’s Live Flesh is, to my mind, his finest achievement to date; Betty Fisher and Other Stories easily stands comparisons with earlier Miller titles such as Class Trip; and Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (though he’s since returned to Rendell with 2004’s The Bridesmaid, which has also received a UK DVD release of late) was not only the best work the filmmaker has produced during the nineties, but also perhaps the best since his 1970s heyday.
Certainly, this is a film very much in line with Chabrol’s output during that decade; a thriller rife with Hitchcockian motifs and a pointed class dimension which has led some to comment on its overt political nature (though it works just as well on a strictly generic level). Essentially La Cérémonie finds the director taking on the “upstairs downstairs” model: the setting is an isolated country house situated in a seemingly remote French coastal town, home to a wealthy family (husband and wife Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jacqueline Bisset, teenaged children Virginie Ledoyen and Valentin Merlet) and workplace of Sandrine Bonnaire’s mysterious, yet also somewhat innocent seeming housemaid.
Being one of the major proponents of the auteur theory during his time at Cahiers du Cinéma, it should perhaps be expected of Chabrol that he knows we’re going to make connection with his previous work. Indeed, it would appear that he’s using this knowledge to his advantage and as such relentlessly toying with his audience. Given his past form we come to La Cérémonie fully expecting it to puncture this upper-middle class idyll with his customary sardonic wit. Certainly, the film does as much in a variety of manners, but then so fully as to lessen its concentration elsewhere. Rather it becomes a perfect case of misdirection inasmuch as we instinctively side with Bonnaire (and later her new friend Isabelle Huppert, the local postmistress and local gossip) without complete consideration of her motives. By the time La Cérémonie has gotten well and truly underway we’re therefore not entirely sure as to where we should look and, by extension, whom to trust. In other words, Chabrol has set up the perfect tension.
Furthermore, he also trusts the audience to fill in their own gaps. His is a film which offers a slow trickle of information with regards to peoples’ pasts and the like, yet ultimately remains ambiguous. As we’re never quite as to whom we should trust, we’re also never entirely sure as to what we should believe. Is Huppert’s gossip, for example, to be taken as completely genuine or only part? If the latter, then what exactly has been embellished? Indeed, even when she talks of herself and the death of her four-year old some years previous, we’re unable to discern exactly how much of what she says is truth, especially as Chabrol chucks in a number of throwaway lines which could have wider implications. Of course, with almost 40 years experience as a filmmaker at the time, and even more features under his belt, we no doubt trust the director and as such are free to let La Cérémonie unfold before our eyes in full confidence that everything is under control, even if the various onscreen participants seem unable to share in such a quality.
With these machinations so perfectly oiled, all Chabrol need do to ensure a top quality entertainment is provide the right surface. And as you should hopefully discern from the cast list, La Cérémonie represents something of a cross-section of some of France’s finest actresses. We find Bisset given her first noteworthy role in what seems like an absolute age, and Ledoyen demonstrating terrific early promise before the starrier turns came along. It’s our two leads, Bonnaire and Huppert, who provide the greater interest, however, especially the latter as she plays so much against type. Here we find her at odds with the sterner, more interior roles she played in the likes of Madame Bovary, La Séparation, The Piano Teacher or 8 Women - and yet this can only aid the character. Seeing her all energetic and almost childlike means that once again she becomes more than a little unknowable. Is she playacting? And therefore even less trustworthy? And what about the manner in which she and Bonnaire seem to merge as characters during the film’s progression, somewhat akin to Persona perhaps? (And of course, it’s also hard not to think of Jean Genet’s The Maids whilst watching this film.) Indeed, you’re likely to come away from La Cérémonie with a number of questions which will only entice you back to further viewings. Yet that’s not to say it’s incomplete; in fact, it makes for a wonderfully satisfying whole.
Gaining a release in the UK courtesy of Second Sight, La Cérémonie’s DVD handling is okay if not quite fully satisfying. The film comes in a ratio of 1.78:1 with anamorphic enhancement, but strikes this viewer as being a little too bright. As such we get a slight loss in detail as well as some prominent edge enhancement, though neither to such a degree that it all becomes unwatchable. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original French in its original Dolby Stereo form and coming across quite well. The problem here, however, is that the English subtitles, though generated by the disc, cannot be switched off – a detail which seems to have occurred with a number of Second Sight’s recent foreign language releases. That said, we do see a slight change from such titles inasmuch as the disc comes with extras, albeit in the form of a solitary featurette. Entitled ‘La Cérémonie: Le Making of, this piece is brief and essentially follows the standard EPK model, but nonetheless earns its inclusion thanks to Chabrol’s many interesting words and the for the interviews with leading ladies Huppert, Bonnaire and Bisset. (As with the main feature, this piece comes with non-optional English subtitling.)