Often heralded as Claude Chabrol’s best work, La cérémonie is a dark indictment of class and the bourgeoisie. However, like all of his films, things are never quite black and white. The quiet and illiterate Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is hired by an upper class family, who lives in a secluded manor in the French countryside. She quickly earns their respect through quiet and efficient work, which the family finds endearing. This is all disrupted, however, with the introduction of the postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who becomes quick friends with Sophie and encourages her to rebel against her bourgeois employers.
Bringing together possibly the two best actors of their generation, it’s no surprise that Chabrol’s La cérémonie has such an impact. Both Huppert and Bonnaire embody their roles with incredible passion and bring new layers of fascination to the dialogue and plot. Sandrine Bonnaire in particular tackles a difficult role that requires the right balance of pathos, shame and compassion. Sophie could easily become a caricature bending to the wills of those who surround her, but she instead comes across as a person yearning for love and respect in a world that has so often turned its back on her.
Trust is at the heart of the film’s conflict, as Sophie feels that for the first time in her work she has found the love and respect she has always wanted. The family seems to treat her well and even respects her. Jeanne corrupts the atmosphere, however, by suggesting that Sophie is nothing more than the “help,” and the family’s love is conditional on her obedience. This becomes the key argument in class inequality, and it becomes emotionally overwhelming though a personal and intimate exploration. Not many films drip with tension as darkly as La cérémonie, as the film’s narrative threatens more than just the status of the characters. Chabrol challenges the very way of life that positions some above others based solely on money — whether earned or inherited.
If you have an ounce of capitalist discomfort, La cérémonie will surely begin to boil your blood, and that’s where things get interesting. The anger towards the system of inequality becomes inevitably balanced by the recklessness of Jeanne, who is clearly both unbalanced and manipulative. You side with her begrudgingly while acknowledging that the Lelievre family cannot help the status of their birth as much as Sophie can. They are not bad people because they are rich, Sophie is not a bad person because she is poor. And so, the film’s brutal and horrifying final act hits, which leaves no prisoners in its wake. Chabrol ends his film without allowing for comfortable feelings.
La cérémonie is a difficult film to swallow, which is one of the reasons why it’s so haunting. It brings together many of Chabrol’s greatest strengths and matches them with an incredibly talented cast. While some may prefer other Chabrol films, it’s not difficult to argue that La cérémonie is among his very best efforts.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.