Engrossing, ultimately stunning, La cérémonie unfolds along a class divide between maidservant and rich employers, the working class and the bourgeoisie. Claude Chabrol’s film was named best foreign-language film by the National Society of Film Critics and the critics in Los Angeles.
Sophie, tormented by illiteracy, which her employers don’t know about, goes to work in Brittany for the Lelièvres. The household includes a step/daughter and a son. Sophie is befriended by Jeanne, a postal worker who despises Georges Lelièvre, whose mail she routinely opens prior to delivery; suspecting this, Lelièvre also despises her. Eventually he lays down the law; Sophie is not to bring Jeanne into his home.
Chabrol brilliantly essays class condescension, ferreting out the remnants of feudalism attached to domestic labor. A source of continual astonishment for us is the degree to which the Lelièvres regard themselves as kind, appreciative, enlightened. (Catherine, incidentally, entered her “class” through marriage.) This finds a parallel in the local Catholic church, where Jeanne and Sophie volunteer sorting clothing donations that inadvertently disclose contempt for the poor. Jeanne does her best to confront donors with their delusion of compassion, while the ineffectual, stupid priest burrows into his complacent good-deed-doing.
Seemingly of a more liberated generation, Georges’s daughter, Melinda, attempts to befriend sullen, secretive Sophie, but executes the widest and deepest betrayal. Both Sophie and Jeanne have a suspicious death in their pasts (in Jeanne’s case, the death of her infant), but the law could prove nothing against either. At the end of this film, no one escapes justice. Five are killed, leaving one as good as dead.
Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, as Sophie and Jeanne, shared the best actress prize at Venice, and Huppert, at her liveliest here, also won the César and the Lumiere Award.
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