A young woman named Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is interviewed for a housekeeping position at the country estate of Catherine Lelievre (Jacqueline Bisset) and her family. Sophie is enigmatically succinct in her answers, but her references are highly complimentary, and she is immediately offered the job. However, from the onset, it is evident that there is something odd about Sophie’s behavior. She has an instinctive, patent response of “I don’t know” to most questions, even when the answer does not apply. She refuses to dust the books in the library, despite keeping the rest of the house impeccably clean. She prefers to wash the dishes by hand instead of using the dishwasher. When she is given the opportunity to take driving lessons, she claims to have poor vision and declines the offer. Georges Lelievre (Jean-Pierre Cassel) sends her to an optometrist for an eye examination, but she avoids the appointment, and spends the afternoon shopping around town. One day, she is left a note on the kitchen table, and truth becomes evident – Sophie cannot read. In attempt to conceal her illiteracy from everyone, she becomes increasingly withdrawn from her employers, and the deception and lies compound. Soon, her friendship with an eccentric, interfering postal worker named Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a woman of dubious character, grows unnaturally close, and the relationship leads to an incomprehensible act.
Claude Chabrol explores the themes of isolation and loneliness in La Cérémonie. The film’s opening credits roll against the landscape shot of Madame Lelievre’s car traversing the empty road leading to the remote estate. In essence, the geographic location is a reflection of Sophie’s alienation from the Lelievre family, as she attempts to keep her illiteracy a secret. Sophie’s long walks to town and her affinity for watching television serve, not as pleasant diversions from the emptiness and boredom of the house, but as a means of distraction and evasion. Her relationship with the disreputable Jeanne stems from a mutual sense of maladjustment and disaffection. La Cérémonie is an elegant, haunting, and tragic tale of a woman driven by personal insecurity down a path of destruction and despair. It is the road to ruin.
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