Class conflict, anyone?

Two women, two misfits, two people with something shady in their past lives.  The maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) cannot read, and is intensely ashamed of it.  She makes herself into a cipher so as not to be found out, but there’s something terrible bubbling beneath, and a criminal deed in her past…maybe.  They couldn’t prove anything.    The postal clerk (Isabelle Huppert) seems to never have been properly socialized – she’s just this side of out of control.  Did she kill her young child by abusing her?  The judge said there was no proof. They fall in with one another, recognizing each other as soul mates, and form a Platonic bond.  Together, their resentment of the local patron, the maid’s employer, and his comfortable bourgeois family becomes something terrible.

Claude Chabrol jokingly called his film La cérémonie, made in 1995,   “the last Marxist film.”  Some of his fans could learn something from his sense of humor.  Consider this exceprt from a review that insists on extracting a class-conscious moral from the story:

In La cérémonie, the characters’ latent sexualities may insidiously be equated with evil, but this evil remains immeasurably more moral than the hypocritical and hierarchical society it attacks.

Chabrol is certainly intensely aware of class divisions, and he weaves  them with great effect into this chilling tale, but his vision is nuanced and subtle rather a simple conflict or classes and relative immoralities.

The title of the film is slang for being lead to the guillotine for execution, a state ritual of justice, adding a further touch of irony and ambiguity as the film moves with heavy stateliness towards its blood spattered conclusion.  The force that drives the violence is not ideology, but evil and happenstance.   The massacre is a crazy stunt that gets out of hand, or maybe it was inevitable, but that is taken in stride once it comes about.  Surveying the bodies, Huppert’s character says, “That’s well done.”  “You know what to do now.  Call the police and say you found them like that. They won’t be able to prove anything.”  The state doesn’t protect the good bourgeoisie from these looneys any more than it protects workers from the predatory owning class.

And what of this bourgois family?  They’re not a bad lot.  They are fair.  They pay well.  They are very loving to one another.  Maybe a bit full of themselves and a bit too used to their great advantages, but not a bad lot after all.  They certainly don’t want to hurt anyone.   Is this hypocrisy?  Does the fact that the father owns the local factory make him a ruthless exploiter?  Nothing would indicate that.  He is almost the ideal bourgeois.  It’s true, however, that servants can be such a pain in the neck!  And they definitely should know their place.

This theme of the bourgeoisie is such a terribly important theme in European culture that it can be puzzling for an American.  Here, everyone is middle-class.  Of course, bourgeois is more than a term for a group with a certain income:  it has very deep and wide connotations in Europe.  They are on full display in La cérémonie.

Another film also intensely involved with class dissection is Bernardo Bertulluci’s Before the Revolution of 1964.  I thought I detected an homage or allusion to that film in this sequence from Chabrol’s:

During a party, the young girl passionately makes out with her boyfriend – the camera pans away to the next room where the boring chit chat among les adultes continues.

In Before the Revolution, pop music blares from the radio, the old man leaves with his newspaper:  Let’s dance, shall we?Ah, look – she’s asleep!

The man and the woman in the extremely sexy passage are aunt and nephew:  after all, the movie is very loosely based on Stendhal’s novel, The Charterhouse of Parma.

10 Responses to Class conflict, anyone?

  1. Ducky's here says:

    Bourgeois morality is always a little suspect in Chabrol. The working class does occasionally become the agents for rectifying matters.

    He’s still making films. Those French new wave guys certainly have been productive, if ignored by mainstream audiences.

    • lichanos says:

      I was thinking of who there is in America who is similar to these French auteurs. Guys who crank out “small” films, good films, constantly reworking similar themes in different ways. I only came up with Woody Allen, but I don’t like his stuff at all most of the time.

      When Avatar is busting bank vaults, it’s definitely going to be a minority taste, this stuff…

  2. Man of Roma says:

    This theme of the bourgeoisie is such a terribly important theme in European culture that it can be puzzling for an American. Here, everyone is middle-class.

    Don’t get mistaken – you read too much 1800 French literature lol. This older European social structure is bit more apparent now, and it was so also at the times of Chabrol.

    Now in Europe, but also I said in the 50s-60s, we ‘tend’ to be very similar to you: the very rich, a large middle class, and the low income or working class: 3 classes.

    The thing is Marxism was terribly influential among the intellectuals – we were mainly leftists, there was not much right-wing culture until the 80-90 possibly. Now Marxism is a political religion, with no real reason or science but based on emotions.

    So even if the social structure was changing /had changed in France, Italy Germany the intellectuals ‘needed’ to think we were in a social situation more similar to the novels you read, with 4 classes and relatively strong related and diverse subcultures: working class (which has changed a lot), petite bourgeoisie (which has changed but there are remnants), medium bourgeoisie (now eating up all), and upper bourgeoisie.

    The concept of bourgeoisie implies there is aristocracy too, even though, we have discussed it, it is only a light trace, or souvenir.

    Confused. I am drinking a beer. This language is killing me.

    • lichanos says:

      What I gather from your alcoholic gloss 😉 is that I am wrong to think that Europe is very different from the USA: it is only the intellectuals that are obsessed with la bourgeoisie. Is that it?

      No doubt peeking in on Europe through novels and films gives me a distorted view of things. I am aware of this though. Just last night, after watching Chabrol, I was thinking of all the French people I’ve met, and the ones my daughter met last summer, and they were pretty much like us. That is, they weren’t politicized workers, and they weren’t well heeled children of factory owners – just what would be otherwise known as the petite bourgeoisie. Best not to put too much stock in intellectuals!

      Of course, this is rooted in two of the most imporant fantasies of my entire life: that I would somehow become a member of that cultured, leisured, beautiful, and philosophically-minded comfortable class by escaping from my suburban homeland (or the phantasy that they even exist!); and that I should become an intellectual to join the great “republic of letters” peopled by high-minded folks who seek truth and know so much and inhabit prestigious eastern universities. I learned; there are harder lessons than those to be had in life.

  3. troutsky says:

    If you are confused, here is a simple test. There is a strike at a factory. With whom do you sympathize, the workers or the owners?
    Perhaps you think “it depends” now that the “social structure” has changed. In this case you are bourgeois.I don’t know if I am an intellectual or not, I have not taken any of the tests, but I work for wages and understand that relationship perfectly well.

    • lichanos says:


      So few of us work at factories anymore. Things were certainly simpler then. Anyway, I never cross picket lines. I figure that whatever the merits of the case, striking is the only weapon workers have, and I don’t want to tip the scales if I can avoid it.

      Other than that, I can’t say your comment provides much guidance. Workers can do stupid and selfish things too. They just don’t get away with it so easily, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to be that way.

  4. mark says:

    ‘With whom do you sympathize, the workers or the owners?’ Er, surely it depends upon the validity of the claims on both sides, probably balanced against wider interests. I think the phenomenon of teamism is relevant here. I refer to the last sentence of lichanos’s last post: ‘Just pick your team, and root for them, is all it is…’ I restrained myself from making a comment yesterday approving of L’s sentiments. Today, seeing an apparently perfect example of barracking for the team, I cannot restrain again! But don’t worry, it is not new, as I am sure Lichanos will agree. After reading his post I finished off the last pages of Zola’s ‘Nana’, and there is the inane patter of political teamism at its tedious best. Life goes on.

    Oh, and this post of Jahsonic’s seems to me to still be relevant.
    Reading Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere, and current school texts and academic works in this country – all of which celebrate or promote violence – leads me to believe that there is a violent strain of the revolutionist left that is still strong and seeks to depose by violence whoever it constructs as its enemy. In this country that enemy is despised in part merely for its commitment to peaceful change. I get the sense sometimes that the raison d’etre is not change, but violence itself.

    Note that La cérémonie echoes themes from the Papin sisters case, which Sartre apparently echoed in Erostrate (I haven’t read it).

    A minute later: Ahh, but there it is listed at !

    • lichanos says:

      Thanks again for another meaty comment, mark/pancime!

      Regarding Nana, a favorite of mine, I’ll have to check the ending when I’m at home. I just recall the crowds chanting “To Berlin” ouside of Nana’s bedroom, while she lays there putrefying beneath her pox-covered skin.

      Teamism…hmmm. Not a bad term. Less connotations of anthropolgic condescension than tribalism.

      On the theme of the “romance of violence,” thanks so much for the pointer to the Papin Sisters, of whom I was completely unaware. That adds quite another layer to La cérémonie: Chabrol echoes those themes, but also undercuts them as well. Thus, an excellent film. Also, I think the desire for some sort of “cleansing” violence is something that comes and goes in politics – it has a long history on the Left, from Robespierre at least to Sorel – and it is present in fascism too.

      Finally, thanks for the link to the Rowlandson at Jahsonic. I was not aware of this print – Rowlandson is not usually so propagandistic. One person who is, but like Chabrol often cuts both ways, is my graphic idol, Gillray. Consider this favorite of mine, also from 1792 – who was copying whom? French Liberty – British Slavery

      Rowlandson shows the prosperous Brits as free, the revolutionary French as claiming to be free, but in reality sunk in poverty and oppression. Gillray adopts a scornful irony, labelling the Brits as slaves and the emaciated Frenchman as “free” – free to freeze and live in rags. But notice how he undercuts the party he supports, much as he often did with the Tories, by whom he was paid for a long period. The Brit is a fat, stupid, beef glutton complaining about his taxes, the taxes that fund the army and navy that keeps him free! His freedom gives him the “luxury” of complaining and taking it for granted. Clever chap, that Gillray!

  5. There are two other films on the same subject (the Papin sisters) Sister, My Sister and Murderous Maids. I think, of the lot, that Murderous Maids was perhaps the ‘truest’version of them all–extremly painful to watch, the cruelty and the degradation of the maids who…well…finally exploded.

  6. mark says:

    Ahh, and here is Jahsonic’s Gillrayian contribution posted today!! It’s all that good food…


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