Thursday, January 05, 2006

La Ceremonie: DVD Review

La Ceremonie (1995) by Claude Chabrol tells the story of the members of a wealthy family living in an isolated villa who hire a new maid. Although the family is, for the most part, generous and kind, even socially progressive, Chabrol focuses on the tensions, the casual class assumptions and delicate unspoken social agreements which facilitate such a servant-employer relationship. Best of all, he tells this story by playing with the genre of the thriller: Bernard Hermann-like score, tightly unfolding plot, and scenes full of paranoia and suspense, which threaten to explode into violence.

Sandrine Bonnaire is amazing as the maid: she has an aura of quiet, reserved mystery, essential to the element of suspense in the film. She has a cold, emotionless look about her--is it bitterness we're seeing or subservience? Is she absorbing every injury, every unintended insult and condescension or shrugging them off by remaining detatched? Isabelle Huppert is great as always as the town's more uninhibited postal clerk with a pathological grudge against the family, who befriends and eventually manipulates Bonnaire.

Chabrol is wonderful with rich and suggestive detail. Little scenes that would be glossed over in a Hollywood film take on great s
ignificance here, such as when the family matriarch gives Sandrine a first tour of the luxurious house or when the teenaged children in the family--who ostensibly object to their parents' hiring a maid due to a more socially progressive outlook--ask her to do chores for them. "I was going to iron my clothes later, but if you're not too busy?" They're scenes that are rich in suggestion without hitting the viewer over the head with any one particular meaning we're meant to take away.

I'll try not to give any spoilers but I'll just offer a warning that the end is a real shocker, pretty violent. It was a conclusion I wasn't expecting, and, although it wasn't entirely unsatisfying, it
didn't quite feel like that last piece of the puzzle, the way a really good thriller ends: everything should feel as if it's fallen into place. And in the end--again I don't want to give away too much--the film might avail itself too much of the social paranoia and discomfort it's trying to expose.

Nonetheless, Chabrol has made a tight, interesting "faux thriller" which throws a light on the violence, resentments and anger which often seethe just below the surface of hierarchacal, social relationships.

FilmStocker Rating: B

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