Claude Chabrol, the grand master of the coolly unsettling French psychodrama, fashions another seductively sinister example of his specialty in “The Flower of Evil.” Like its predecessor, “Merci pour la Chocolat,” it’s a tale of the secrets and violence that lurk behind the placid facade of an upper-crust provincial family–in this case the Charpin-Vasseurs, a clan whose past has dark complexities and whose future, it turns out, may turn even grimmer.
After an eerie beginning in which the camera moves silently through an opulent house, coming finally to rest on a corpse, the film goes back in time to show young Francois (Benoit Magimel) being picked up at the airport, after several years’ study in America, by his pharmacist father Gerard (Bernard Le Coq). As the two drive home, their forced conversation suggests that not all is well between them. When they reach the house, they’re greeted by Francois’ step-sister Michele (Melanie Doutey) and elderly Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon), who’s preparing an elaborate welcome-home dinner. Shortly afterward Gerard’s wife Anne (Nathalie Baye), a local politician running for mayor, returns home from a day on the campaign trail with her running-mate and campaign manager Matthieu (Thomas Chabrol); Gerard clearly dislikes his spouse’s career and, in particular, Matthieu.
It’s not long before the intricacies of the relationships are detailed. Anne was formerly the wife of Gerard’s brother, who was killed in a car accident along with Gerard’s first wife. Francois and Michele are, therefore, cousins as well as step-brother and step-sister; they’re also, it’s quickly made apparent, sexually interested in each other. A further wrinkle comes when a scurrilous pamphlet attacking the Charpin-Vasseurs family appears; in particular it points out that Line was accused of murdering her father, who had collaborated with the Nazis to the extent even of betraying his own son, a resistance fighter, during the war.
From this point the script follows the various family members through the night on which the election results are announced. Particular emphasis is put on the campaign (one of the most amusing sequences shows Anne and Matthieu visiting voters in a high-rise complex), on a trip Francois and Michele take to a country house, and on Gerard’s philandering ways, with Aunt Line always standing above the action–observing, judging and advising while remembering her unhappy past. At the close things take a rather perverse and violent turn, one suggesting that the family’s motto might be that father neither knows, nor does, best.
“The Flower of Evil” is ultimately about malice that passes from generation to generation, and the righteous vengeance that can rise up against it. But the picture isn’t a study in messages or arguments. It’s exercise in mood and style, expertly creating an atmosphere of understated anger and vague dread. It also takes the time to add typically Chabrolian touches of mordant humor–comments about the supposed cultural flaws of Americans and delightfully snide observations on French class differences–while using periodic dinner scenes to comment crisply on the patterns of upper-crust life. And the ambiguity of the denouement, which also boasts a wonderfully macabre sequence involving a corpse (a bleaker version of what goes on in Hitchcock’s “The Trouble With Harry”) is Gallic with a capital G. The cast is uniformly excellent, but Flon remains a standout, and the camerawork of Eduardo Serra effectively complements the director’s vision. So do the brief snippets of Herrmannesque music contributed by Matthieu Chabrol.
Elegant, witty and gently unsettling, Chabrol’s fiftieth film shows that the director has retained his masterly touch.