Updated: Jan 12
Inherently dramatic and capable of inspiring strong emotions, the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoise is a film-maker’s dream; the eternal struggle between the little guy and the big guys has always been irresistible as we, the audience, invariably root for David while relishing Goliath’s fall. Well, that’s how it usually works. And then comes along Claude Chabrol’s 1995 film La Cérémonie and any assumptions we hold about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys are pretty much thrown out of the window.
Sandrine Bonnaire plays Sophie, a young woman who has just gained employment as a maid for the affluent Lelievre family, inhabitants of a grand chateau and thus archetypal members of French bourgeoise society. Madame Lelievre (Jaqueline Bisset) her older husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and their two children live what appears to be an idyllic life.
Sophie duly begins to work for the family: cooking, cleaning – effectively a dog’s body. To a modern audience whose sensibilities have been shaped by never-ending injustice narratives, this type of master-servant scenario may well prove hard to stomach. Without wishing to get too analytical, the film is indeed taking the audience into the realm of power relationships especially those which exists between the economically strong and weak. The poor have always sold their labour to the rich. Plus ca change.
Thus, the majority of viewers will instinctively side with poor, downtrodden Sophie. When it is revealed the silent young woman is illiterate, empathy only increases. It would be impossible to imagine a scenario whereby anybody but a member of the very poorest and downtrodden sector of western society could be illiterate. This young woman must have had the toughest life possible, or so we are encouraged to think. Interestingly, Chabrol does not provide a single biographical snippet about Sophie. She truly is an enigma.
‘Servant’ might have been supplanted by euphemisms such as ‘domestic help’ but servant is exactly what Sophie is. Cleaning up after the family, attuning herself to their foibles, being generally subservient will surely strike the viewer as an intolerable situation. If not exploited in the full sense of the word this shy, introverted woman is certainly taken for granted by her employers. Monsieur and madame, busy professionals both, expect the highest standards.
As degrading as the situation appears, Sophie is not however ill-treated. The Lelievre family are no tyrants. They are cultured and no doubt view themselves as enlightened. With their penchant for the good things in life, the chateau and enjoyment of Mozart it would be all too easy to despise this well-to-do bourgeoise family and Chabrol has been very careful to avoid such an occurrence.
Sophie is thus treated with professional courtesy despite the misgivings of M. Lelivere who disapproves of her friendship with local postal clerk Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert). But underneath the polite and civil veneer lurks an ineluctable reality: the divide between the haves (The Lelievres) and have nots (Sophie/Jeanne) is vast and unbridgeable. How can it end any other way, but badly?
No doubt influenced by the infamous case of the Papin sisters who, in 1933, slaughtered their employers while employed as domestic servants, the film ends on a shocking note. Anticipating where sympathies will inevitably lie, Chabrol rather deftly usurps some if not all of the audiences’ assumptions. With bodies littering the stage as per a Shakespearean tragedy, it’s not entirely clear where sympathies should lie. Many questions arise:
That the downtrodden should be encouraged to rise up against their oppressors is a cliché as old as the hills, but what happens when they do? As representatives of the self-obsessed bourgeoise, come the revolution do a basically decent family like the Lelievres nevertheless ‘deserve all they get?’
Although La Cérémonie raises questions of interest not just to Marxists, it’s a film that at almost two hours in length burns very slowly – sometimes a little too slowly. There’s nothing to get too fired up about; the Lelievres are bland, unengaging and quite nice in their own way. Huppert’s introduction as the unstable malcontent, envious of the family in the big house, shifts the focus entirely away from Sophie and her static relationship with her employers.
Indeed, everything in this movie seems detached. And yet although at times it threatens to stall, assessing it the morning after when the fog has cleared, all sorts of nuances spring out. Weird. And what about the final scene? Without giving the twist away, it seems Sophie might just escape justice. The message is suitably enigmatic: murdering your (scrupulously polite) oppressors may set you free. On the other hand it might not. Stranger still.
La Cérémonie might not be Chabrol’s best film. Come to think of it, it might even be his worst. Who can tell?