Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Remembering Claude Chabrol: La Cérémonie

I’ve been thinking of Claude Chabrol ever since news of his death, at age 80, was announced about a week ago. And it occurred to me that like fellow New Wave filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who also died this year (but from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum), Chabrol successfully carved out his own specific niche in a corner of world cinema. Whereas Rohmer, like Mike Leigh, offered up generous portraits of (mostly) middle class people he liked very much, Chabrol used his cinematic canvas to excoriate those he didn’t like at all, namely the bourgeoisie from which he sprung. His films were almost always about the evils and wickedness emanating from the monied classes but he didn’t assail them in a simplistic manner nor did he pretend that the lower classes were paragons of virtue, either. Usually, the downtrodden ‘victims’ of the rich were able to match them when it came to guile and venality, perhaps never more so than in one of his best films, La Cérémonie (1995).

It’s apropos that La Cérémonie is based on A Judgement in Stone, a 1977 novel by English writer Ruth Rendell. Her chilling novels of English obsession and jealousy were tailor-made for the likes of Chabrol, who, of course, was tilling the same soil with his probing dissections of the French bourgeoisie. He almost perfectly executes this adaptation, which he co - wrote with Caroline Eliacheff, and which was previously made into a forgettable 1992 Canadian movie The Housekeeper, with Rita Tushingham. (Rendell’s 1986 book Live Flesh was turned into an equally memorable film by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar in 1997.) Rendell, who is only four months older than Chabrol, is on record as pronouncing Chabrol’s film to be one of the few adaptations of her work that has pleased her.

Sandrine Bonnaire (Monsieur Hire, A Nos Amours) portrays a passive, sullen and illiterate maid who takes up residence in a small village as the employee of a rich French family. She seems to be fitting in and her employers appear friendly and considerate - yet something is not quite right. When the housekeeper is befriended by a caustic postmistress (Chabrol mainstay Isabelle Huppert, Une affaire de femmes, Merci pour le chocolat) who bears a mysterious grudge against the woman's bosses, the stage is set for a tense confrontation between the maid and the representatives of the upper classes for whom she toils.

The beauty of Chabrol is that his films have an inevitability, but while you are watching them the ending is never obvious. La Cérémonie, like his excellent 1994 drama about jealousy and fidelity, L’enfer, keeps audiences guessing about its characters' intentions and secrets. (Stay for the final credits for one surprising revelation.) Their surfaces appear calm, but passions and violence roil beneath. Without Bonnaire, however, it's doubtful that La Ceremonie would have had the impact that it did. Bonnaire keeps her character interesting and constantly forces the audience to alter their responses to her. Her remarkably understated performance deservedly copped her the Coppa Volpi, shared with an equally superb Huppert for best actress at the Venice Film Festival. (Huppert also won the Best Actress César Award at home.) Together, the two actresses form a combination that gives La Cérémonie a disturbing undercurrent of danger. Its visceral, lingering punch was proof, as in so many of his movies, such as Les Cousins, La Femme infidèle and Betty that Chabrol was one of the world's master filmmakers. He will be missed.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He'll be teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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