La Cérémonie (Claude Chabrol)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

La Cérémonie begins with a shot so casually remarkable that I wonder whether it was design or accident. From a distance, we see Sandrine Bonnaire -- playing, as we will soon learn, a housekeeper named Sophie -- crossing a busy street in northern France. As she makes her way toward the camera, a large, dark-colored truck or van passes at high speed, moving horizontally across the frame, and blots out the sunlight -- revealing, for a memorable instant, the reflection of a woman (Jacqueline Bisset, we quickly discover, as her prospective employer, Madame Lelièvre) watching Sophie from within a café. This happens almost instantaneously, so that the effect is nearly subliminal; if it was an accident, it was a happy one, for though the conversation which follows is fairly prosaic -- Madame Lelièvre offers Sophie a job, which she accepts -- that opening shot immediately gives La Cérémonie an air of quiet malevolence, and the chill lingers throughout. Almost unbearably creepy, Chabrol's film has been described by some as a thriller (Chabrol, the ads trumpet, is "the French Hitchcock!"), but the truth is that it never thrills; what it does do, and very well indeed, is create in the viewer a feeling of unease which gradually increases until it becomes full-blown dread. (The only other recent movie that had this effect on me was Lodge Kerrigan's eerie Clean, Shaven.) Sophie, you see, is a And when she befriends a more flamboyant eccentric, Jeanne (played with surprising gusto by the usually staid Isabelle Huppert), and the two of them begin giggling manically at what seem to be their own private jokes, it isn't hard to guess that things may get a tad ugly before the closing credits begin to roll. What troubles me about La Cérémonie, which is expertly acted, shot, and directed (Huppert, in particular, is sensational) is the glib way that this unsettling scenario plays out; Chabrol's observations about class are both trite and naïve, and, unfortunately, it's those observations that fuel the film's tiny narrative engine. What happens in the final reel feels simultaneously inevitable and pointless, like the next Chris Farley/David Spade comedy: inevitable because of how skillfully Chabrol and his actors use the medium; pointless because, well, apart from the sheer virtuosity of the thing, what exactly is the point? Okay, the rich and the poor hate each other, and the latter are more honest and forthright about it -- and? There's no denying that La Cérémonie is gripping and nerve-wracking, but ultimately it's less than the sum of its parts, a road with exquisite scenery that leads nowhere...or, more precisely, a road with exquisite scenery that leads to a drab spot you visited a long time ago and vowed to avoid in future. If it were more conventionally entertaining, such superficiality would be less detrimental -- I don't really care what Jaws, say, is "about" -- but this film's ideas are its raison d'être, and so it's immensely disappointing when they turn out to be so specious. Nonetheless, like the much-ballyhooed Breaking the Waves, it's so accomplished that I can't help but admire it; hence the reluctant, half-hearted recommendation implicit in the *** rating above. It is, as J.J. Hunsecker might say, a cookie full of arsenic.