Today: April 22, 2024

La Cérémonie

The opening scenes of La Cérémonie give very little away.

The opening scenes of La Cérémonie give very little away. The film begins with a meeting between seemingly timid housemaid
Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and her wealthy, soon-to-be employer
Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset). The dialogue is clipped and to
the point, the only small hints of any underlying tension come from Sophie’s
slightly curt answers, and the suggestion that these two characters come from
very different worlds. The following shots of a car travelling through the
French countryside, which are accompanied by bursts of ominous string music,
seem almost out of place in the face of such a mundane opening interaction. But
this ambiguity ends up being the film’s greatest strength.

Adapted from Ruth
Rendell
’s “A Judgement in Stone”, La Cérémonie is a film that
creates and builds tension through its nagging sense of uncertainty and by
constantly pointing the audience in the wrong direction. We are introduced to a
set of characters we know very little about and, as the film gradually
introduces their backstories and reveals a little about their separate natures,
we are left piecing together clues and wondering about the direction the film
will take. The result is almost Hitchcockian in its style and the
various red herrings brings back memories of the opening Act of Psycho.
Will Sophie’s illiteracy lead to her being ostracised? Or do Georges Lelievre’s
(Jean-Pierre Cassel) sudden outbursts point towards a hidden violence in
the man’s past? The constant questions the film creates add to the sense of
underlying tension, while simultaneously keeping the real truth hidden until
the final Act.

For the most
part, this tension is emphasised by the style of direction, with Claude
Chabrol
using some interesting techniques to draw upon the film’s ominous
undercurrent. Sophie’s unhealthy friendship with the childish and bitter
postmistress Jeanne (played brilliantly by Isabelle Huppert), for
instance, is summed up by a scene in which the two are driving at night. A shot
from the front of the car shows the headlights fading into the dark tunnel of
road that stretches before them; the result is somehow unnerving, and echoes
the bleak and unknowable conclusion the characters are heading towards.
However, while the majority of direction is effective in this way, certain
scenes are let down by the editing, which occasionally feels clunky and
awkward.

Aside from this
small point, though, the film does a mostly solid job of unsettling the
audience, keeping us guessing right up until the abrupt conclusion. Some might
find the pacing of the film frustrating (it’s very slow at first, then quickly
leaps forward in the final Act), but this could be argued to reflect the
subject matter: a disturbing portrayal of psychological deterioration and how
certain situations and human relationships can be enough to trigger a horrific
downward spiral.

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