I was really excited when Netflix sent me four foreign films in a row to my house because the track record for the majority of the foreign films I’ve watched for this blog has been excellent. However, I’ve gotten two duds in a row which has been sort of disappointing. Shadow was a disjointed and jumbled mess lacking a coherent plot, and now, 1996’s French thriller La Ceremonie was light on the thrills and heavy on levels of class conflict that felt absurd even to me, a self-identified socialist, that was saved from utter mediocrity with a shocking and abrupt ending. I’m really hoping that The Shop on Main Street (which won best Foreign Film at the Oscars) and Kurosawa’s Ran help save the day for foreign films that rival the best that we as Americans have to offer.
Basically, La Ceremonie is Gosford Park in Frnace with a fifth of the cast and French class struggles instead of Anglo-Saxon strife. The Lelievre family (who are the epitome of bourgeois) live in an isolated house in the country side in a near state of idyllic happiness. They only want for one luxury. That is a maid. So, into their lives arrives Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), a quiet and illiterate woman who desperately hides her illiteracy from her employers. Beneath the facade of tranquility and contentment, the Lelievres are a family bursting with secrets and past torment (although it is mostly alluded to and never shown). The cracks in this seemingly happy family burst when Sophie befriends the local postmistress, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who is far too interested in the lives of the Lelievres and goads Sophie into acts that compromise her place in the family. Without wanting to ruin the ending (which is the only good part of the film), it all hurtles towards an absolutely explosive and disturbing climax.
The problem with the film was the absolutely tepid pacing present throughout (ending excepted). I can’t expecting something to happen, but all we got were stares and awkward moments. I don’t have a problem with slow films as I thoroughly enjoyed Woody Allen’s similarly veined Match Point, but a lot of the tension from the film was hard to swallow in my opinion. You’re supposed to find the Lelievres as the epitome of bourgeois apathy and decadence but they were pretty decent people for the most part. The patriarch was sort of an ass but that was the extent of it. The moment that sets the entire final act of the film in motion (the daughter discovering that Sophie is illiterate, offering help, and then being blackmailed by Sophie for her kindness) pretty nearly ruined the whole film for me. I guess I just found it difficult to empathize or relate in any way with the main characters and there wasn’t enough style or other diversions to make up for poor storytelling.
Had it not been for the ending which came out of nowhere and colored the rest of the film in an entirely different light, this film’s score would have been much lower. The only other things it had going for it were expert performances from Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bissett, and Virgine Ledoyen who all gave wonderful turns as Sophie, Jeanne, the Lelievre matriach, and the daughter respectively. I can’t remember much of the other French-language films that I’ve reviewed for this blog, and honestly, only Belle de Jour springs to mind which I was similarly disapponited in. Right now, Italy still reigns supreme if for no other reason than being home of Fellini who is a nearly unmatched auteur of foreign art house cinema.
Final Score: B-