French filmmaker Claude Chabrol makes films that perform like irresistible but bad lovers. Seductive, mysterious, dangerous are his movies, but more often than not, they leave us unfulfilled. Like Brian DePalma, Chabrol has a knack for wooing audiences with tales of sex, deceit and murder without quite finishing the job. Yet, so sweet is the song, and so alluring the promises, that we keep returning for more, hoping the outcome will be better this time.
With The Flower of Evil, the 73-year-old directorial Lothario is still up to his old tricks–and happily for fans of his old-school filmmaking style (he still uses day for night filters, for instance), he’s doing it without the Viagra of fast cuts and in-your-face violence and noise. This genteel film of depravity follows Chabrol’s familiar preoccupations–incest, murder and upper class decadence–and true to form, he takes his sweet time unfolding his intentions as the film opens with a lilting chanson and an ominous tracking shot through a country manor.
Set in the wine region of Bordeaux, France, The Flower of Evil is a story that plays out in the verdant bosom of the country bourgeoisie. Young Francois is a prodigal son returning home after four years in America. At the airport, he’s picked up by his father Gerard, a hedonistic pharmacist who’s come into some money and is apparently engaging in an illegal business venture on the side.
Back home, we quickly suspect that Francois’ sudden departure for the States had something to do with another female in the household: Michele, his fetching stepsister (and, um, cousin) who is very, very glad to see him. Meanwhile, his stepmother Anne (Nathalie Baye, seen here most recently as Leo DiCaprio’s mom in Catch Me if You Can) is running for mayor, against the wishes of Gerard. In addition to the servant, the remaining household member is dotty old Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon, now in her seventh decade of acting in a career that includes Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin and The Trial). Although her family treats her patronizingly, we suspect that there’s a brittle old skeleton or two in this old maid’s closet.
In its early scenes, the film seems to lean towards a critique of Franco-American relations in the post-9/11 world. “The trouble with Americans,” says Francois, who moved to the US before the terrorist attacks, “is that they’re obsessed by God and money.” But before we can screech “freedom fries,” we find out about past scandals in the family that make Francois seem more like Hamlet returning from his studies at Wittenburg to find his old world clan hopelessly mired in a cesspool of murder, incest and corruption. It seems that Anne’s political opponents have been distributing leaflets that recount her family’s unsavory past: Her grandfather, who was a Jew-persecuting Vichy official; his son (and Anne’s father) that he allowed to die while serving with the Resistance; and his daughter (Anne’s aunt) Line, who was suspected of subsequently murdering her collaborating father. And if that’s not enough, we learn that Anne’s first husband was married to Gerard’s first wife, and these first spouses died together in a car accident.
Confused? Well, so was Hamlet. But the otherwise un-princely Francois (who’s played as a vaguely Mitchum-like stud by Benoit Magimel, best known for his role in Michael Haneke’s terrifyingly brilliant The Piano Teacher in which he played opposite Chabrol’s favorite leading lady, Isabelle Huppert) poses himself a different dilemma: fight or flight? Opting for the latter, he fleas to Aunt Line’s seaside chalet with stepsister/cousin Michele in tow.
After a short romantic weekend, part of which is shared with the increasingly crucial Aunt Line, the lovebirds return to the manor as Anne’s political campaign heats up. She fancies herself a liberal reformer, but her candidacy may hinge on cutting a deal with the neo-Fascist party; at home, she protests too little when Gerard comes home late, drunk and sexually sated. But for all of Anne’s willful ignorance, her bedspread, walls and curtains are covered with floral prints. In the bedroom of this blissfully clueless politician, evil grows at home.
If this film ultimately seems dramatically flat, Chabrol’s reliable sense of malice and his mixture of contempt for and solidarity with the bourgeoisie helps make the movie as gripping as his many other near-great films. The title refers, of course, to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Although there’s only one flower here, its evil has many children. In the self-regarding, enclosed hothouse of this godforsaken clan, the flower of sickness and evil devours its own soil as it keeps on living.