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THE FLOWER OF EVIL
Dir. Claude Chabrol, France, Palm Pictures
The Flower of Evil, Claude Chabrol’s 50th film in 45 years, fits neatly into the director’s oeuvre—perhaps too neatly. In the absence of nouvelle vague mystique, and because he’s through pushing films to their aesthetic limits, Chabrol’s later films aren’t as exhilarating as his early ones. But The Flower of Evil is far from disappointing. With its deliberate pacing, flat tone of detachment, and stunning composition in almost every shot, The Flower of Evil has that distinctive Chabrol feel. One gets the sense that he can knock out these psychological thrillers with ease, and a large part of what makes them enjoyable is his sleight of hand. The self-conscious stylishness so characteristic of his early films—the shock cutting of La Rupture (1970), for example—has given way to something more refined, more deliberately coiled. The portraits of fragmented and tragically reassembled families in his recent films stride along with stylistic economy and assurance. Watching The Flower of Evil, one realizes that, as with 2000’s equally measured Merci pour le chocolat, this co-founder of a movement synonymous with youthful verve and invention has become a reliable old master.
In The Flower of Evil Chabrol once again dissects the tainted provincial bourgeoisie. François Vasseur (Benoit Magimel) and Michele Charpin (Melanie Doutey) are the youngest members of two families that have been hyphenating for six generations. At one point, the two jokingly compare their family’s history to a Zola novel. Indeed, the tortuous interweavings of Charpins and Vasseurs are as convoluted as the plot of a 19th-century tome. Michele’s mother, Anne Charpin-Vasseur (Nathalie Baye), an aspiring local politician, married François’s father, Gerard Vasseur (Bernard Le Coq), after a mysterious car accident killed both their spouses, who just happened to be Anne’s sister and Gerard’s brother. This remarriage makes François and Michele stepsiblings, which greatly complicates the fact that they’re in love with each other.
On the day François returns from Chicago a political broadside directed against Anne’s campaign for reelection to the local council dredges up an insidious past that makes the present appear practically mundane. Each generation has been touched by some tragic or morally questionable event—plane crashes, murder, political and marital betrayal. Despite all this, and at only 104 minutes long, the film feels more like an extended lyric poem than long-winded prose. In fact, The Flower of Evil isn’t a generational family drama at all. Its concerns are more Chabrolian, in other words, psychological rather than historical. He provides the back story in one deft stroke—Anne’s reading of the broadside—then moves on to the present, depicting how the family’s unsavory tradition of incest and murder will inevitably continue.
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Linking past with present is Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon), the story’s true emotional anchor. Chabrol builds suspense through the slow revelation of Line’s unstable psyche, much as he did with Jacqueline Sassard’s “Why” in Les Biches (1968)—his supreme investigation into a more overtly sexual type of trauma. Line’s scars, which lend the film its psychological weight, are more familial—she has long been suspected of murdering her father, a Nazi collaborator who informed on his son, a member of the Resistance. Given to reverie, Line repeatedly drifts off on flights of memory that replay the audio of her past—the phone call that reports the death of Anne’s parents, arguments with her father, childhood conversations with her brother. Accompanied by discordant strings, violent pianos, and a twinkling music box, these portentous dream-like passages (the film’s most deliberately novelistic device—moments of sense-memory that stand out like bits of heightened prose) convey the depths of Line’s past traumas.
Flon is magnificent as the elderly spinster Line, conveying both wry humor and melancholy resolve with just the corners of her mouth. If The Flower of Evil seems thin at first, it’s due to the overall paucity of engaging characters. Baye’s career-minded Anne is never more than dull. Magimel’s François and Doutey’s Michele may be beautiful, but their intimacy often feels forced; Doutey is ineffectual, while Magimel’s brooding seems at odds with his character’s sudden acceptance of a relationship he has rebelled against for years. Often falling into caricature, they become sympathetic only as the extent of Bernard’s lechery—played by Le Coq with the right mix of folksy paternal charm and repulsiveness—is revealed.
It’s hard to take all this bourgeois cartoonishness seriously, and early on the film’s tone is misleadingly lighthearted. Here, as in his other films, Chabrol’s characters play out morally ambiguous dramas without the slightest qualm, acting as if their unorthodox situations were normal, treading deeper into dangerous entanglements as if unaware of consequences (a possible exception is La Rupture, in which Stephane Audran’s Hélene, beset by a diabolical league of conspirators, seems the only character conscious of her situation’s perversity). This goes beyond dramatic irony. When he’s at his best, Chabrol’s characteristic objectivity and detachment can lull the audience into an oblivion as profound as the characters’. One example is the ease with which the Charpin-Vasseurs accept and even condone incestuous relationships. The casual presentation of this unusual inheritance nearly obscures its depravity. In nearly every generation there’s a variation on a brother/sister—union François and Michele are first cousins by blood, siblings by marriage; before they were married, Gerard and Anne were brother and sister-in law; Aunt Line (short for Micheline) refers to her brother, also named François, as the man of her life.
If his audience falls into a certain moral respite, Chabrol rarely lets them leave the theater without a reminder of the proceedings’ gravity. Chabrol’s endings haunt you . In The Flower of Evil Line unburdens herself in a climactic monologue and is about to take responsibility for a murder she didn’t commit. During a long close-up of Line, lost in another reverie, a cacophony of car horns from outside celebrates Anne’s reelection. Voices of memory are now replaced with cheers of victory, and we realize this is a defining moment for Line, a catharsis. As in Merci pour le chocolat, there’s something festering beneath the porcelain exterior. But in that film, the truth is exposed; here, Line continues the cycle of concealment. Although she seems to absolve herself from guilt, she fails to extricate herself or anyone else from the family’s sordid legacy. On the contrary, she seems to ensure its preservation—through the cover-up of another murder she replays the past, only now with the possibility of a happier ending.
Flower of Evil Is Now Playing in Select Theatres