(Air Date: Week Of 01/29/97)
Class struggle in the boondocks of France, climaxed by -- whoa -- the media are sworn to secrecy about the ending of La Ceremonie, a French flic billed as a suspense thriller, and that's just as well since the ending is the whole point of the long and puzzling non-action perceding it. We mostly get character development - there's this rich, bourgeois family, including a tres chic mom, played by Jacqueline Bisset, a suave dad, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel, and their respective offspring, one from each. There's their eerily repressed new maid, Sophie, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, who likes to iron; and an eerily un-repressed postmistress, Jeanne, played by Isabelle Huppert, who likes to open the mail of rich, bourgeois pigs.
The maid and the postmistress strike up this subversive friendship where their rancor against this rich and comfortable, above-it-all, though not really bad-intentioned, family escalates. Weird, huh? Well, Claude Chabrol contends that even if Marxism is kaput, the class struggle still lives. You have to take into account that social classes are much more rigid in Europe than in the U. S., where social class is determined by the fluid ebb and flow of money, and that makes the clash depicted in La Ceremonie seem a little quaint, if not ludicrous, to us 'mericans.
Director Claude Chabrol emerged from the French New Wave in the late fifties, along with Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard. His first film was Le Beau Serge, or Handsome Serge, in 1958. Becoming more mainstream as he started making pschological thrillers, he developed into a sort of French Hitchcock with a class conscious attitude, with films such as the 1969 The Butcher, and the1972 Red Wedding. By the way, Chabrol's female characters tend to be either murder victims, or mentally unbalanced, choose your poison.
The problem with Le Ceremonie is that it's very long on class struggle, and too short on suspense. There is a fascination in the gradual revelation of the characters of Sophie and Jeanne, with strong performances by Bonnaire and Huppert to make them memorable. You get under their skin and understand their frustration in a sort of clinical way, and even feel a scary indentification with the part of them that goes out of control. But the emotional tone is so severely detached that you never really care about either them or the other characters, and you leave wondering what all the fuss was about.
But La Ceremonie is a must-see for franchophiles, for fans of Claude Chabrol, and this cast tres magnifique. And it's not revealing to much to say that in French La Ceremonie is a ritual before an execution.
Copyright 1997 Mary Weems
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