Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Movies: La Cérémonie and Les Blessures Assassines (Murderous Maids)

These two ultra-weird movies were aptly paired but perhaps inappropriately included in Film Forum's current French Crime Wave series. The crimes they depict are, I will argue, unmotivated. Additionally, the films are fairly recent (1995 and 2000, respectively), and not modern classics by anyone's measure, whereas films like Rififi and Le Cercle Rouge are canonical.

La Cérémonie features Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, the new maid at the Lelievre's country estate. This wealthy family of four (an ex-model, an older father, and a teenaged son and daughter) treats her with respect enough, taking her into town for eyeglasses when she claims to need them, and offering to pay for lessons when they find out she doesn't know how to drive. And yet, she hides from them the fact that she can't read (although they would, of course, have paid for lessons for that too) and comes under the influence of dangerously kooky Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the postal clerk who has a personal vendetta against the male head of the Lelievre household. A number of very small incidents, all related to Sophie's illiteracy, snowball until she is fired, and when Jeanne comes over one night to help her pack her things, the two women arm themselves with Mr. Lelievre's hunting rifles and shoot dead the entire family, who had been peacefully watching a Mozart opera on television. If that seems rather out of the blue, then I've captured the moment perfectly. The only worthwhile bit of the film is the closing credit sequence; driving from the scene of the crime, Jeanne's car is broadsided and she dies immediately. Sophie runs out and witnesses the wreck, to which the police have already arrived. The boombox on which the Lelievre's daughter had been recording the Mozart opera, which Jeanne had decided to take home with her, is found in the car by a covetous cop, who happens to press the right button and issue an audio playback of the murder. We almost get the feeling that, like the master painter of a Renaissance workshop, the usually fantastic Chabrol only showed up at the very end of the filmmaking process, placing his signature there at the credits without having had a hand in the rest of the nonsense.

We have an equally random, and even more barbaric, murder of employers in Murderous Maids, in which Sylvie Testud plays Christine Papin, an inexplicably high-strung young woman who loathes her sometimes-whoring mother and is desperate to rescue her fourteen year old sister Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier) from her clutches. Ironically, she takes Léa right into her bed, where they engage in artistic, nude embraces and bite their bottom lips in painful pleasure. I'm certain that there are feminists (and film critics and historians and psychologists) aplenty who would argue that this behavior is totally feasible given the repressive environment in which the sisters find themselves, where they have no privacy, no tenderness, and no sexual outlet, and in which Christine was most likely sexually abused as a child by one of her mother's men. But I am sticking with my bourgeois point of view that this sexual relationship is absurd. It doesn't offend me; I merely find it ridiculous. The head of household here is far less gracious than La Cérémonie's Lelievres, but even her surprise intrusion on the sister's romantic evening, during which they share crepes, naked in bed, doesn't warrant the sudden, brutal death that Christine inflicts upon her (and her present daughter!), with a pewter jug (the closest thing at hand). Nor does it warrant the mutilation wreaked on their bodies by Christine and the now-present Léa, who slice them up with kitchen knives. The sisters are quickly caught (they do not try to hide) and sent to prison, where Christine madly screams for her sister (locked in a separate cell) for days, until the guards bring Léa to her. The older sister, by now clearly insane, claws and smothers the younger, who tries to squirm away, and the guards separate them again. The screen goes black and we're told that Christine, though sentenced to death, died after four years on a commuted life sentence, and that Léa returned to live with her mother, not dying until the year the film was made (without her knowledge or consent). Though the movie is marketed as "a true story," I'm rather doubtful as to its veracity.

A critic with a Marxist bent would be happy to say that these films punish their upper-class characters for their complicity in a destructive social order, and might even propose that my sympathy for the holders of power and money is merely a bourgeois identification with that which I desire. But I would say that these women are emotional basketcases who desperately need therapy and/or yoga, and that these filmmakers need to work a bit harder on generating sympathy for their dark heroines. Why is Sophie so naive and awkward, and why is she so defensive about her (frankly, not all that horrible) deficiency? Why is Jeanne such a roustabout (the backstory about her dead daughter doesn't explain it at all; in fact, it only opens another can of worms). Why doesn't Christine warm to the attentions of the young man at the country house if she is so starved for attention, and, if its because she hates men because of a bad sexual experience in her childhood, why would she open the too-young Léa to sexual experiences, rather than preserve her innocence? None of these women's actions, from the very beginning of each film, make very much sense at all, and therefore, I cannot identify with, feel sorry for, or care about their troubles.

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