Laura Clifford Robin CliffordThe Charpin and Vasseur families have been linked for generations by scandal, murder and incest. Anne Charpin-Vasseur's (Nathalie Baye, "Catch Me If You Can") mayoral run has raised their infamous past in the form of an anonymously distributed leaflet and the return of Anne's stepson, Francois (Benoit Magimel, "The Piano Teacher"), from three years spent in America is the catalyst for history to repeat itself in French director Claude Chabrol's fiftieth film, "The Flower of Evil" ("La Fleur du Mal").
Chabrol returns to the well once more to skewer the bourgeois class and their never changing timelessness. "The Flower of Evil" bears more than a passing resemblance to Chabrol's last film, "Merci Pour le Chocolat," with its suggestions of incest, labs and pharmaceuticals and former spouse-killing car crashes, but where "Chocolat" built a tense unease, "Flower" idles along until an explosive ending it hasn't really earned.
The center of the two families is Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon, "Quartet"), owner of the Bordeaux family home where they all reside, a woman acquitted of a crime she committed years earlier which haunts her memories. Francois's return is greeted with a family feast of lamprey (a regional delicacy Chabrol describes as the opposite of the family, a dish that looks awful but tastes good) but the reunion is interrupted by Matthieu (Thomas Chabrol, son of the director), Anne's running mate. Her husband Gerard (Bernard Le Coq, "The School of Flesh") wants nothing to do with the campaign which will upset his male dominance of a female household and returns to his pharmacy, where he carries out affairs with several women. Is Gerard the author of the malicious pamphlet? Line and her grandniece Michele (Melanie Doutey) are determined to trace its source. In the meantime, Line surreptitiously encourages the rekindled romance between Michele and her cousin/step brother Francois (Michele's mother Anne and Francois's father Gerard married each other when their respective mates, Anne's sister and Gerard's brother, were killed in a mysterious car crash).
Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff ("Merci Pour la Chocolate") and Louise L. Lambrichs have written a circular screenplay where Line's past is laid to rest when it is repeated by Michele in the present. Anne's mayoral bid reflects the political background of her grandfather, Pierre, who held at important post from 1940-1944 in the Vichy government. His collaboration with the Nazis is much weakened two generations down where Anne only appears to make empty promises to the residents of a housing project.
It is this watering down, particularly evident with the film's middle generation, that makes "The Flower of Evil" such a tepid affair. Anne and Gerard only present surfaces, one vapid the other simply a louse, creating a weak link. Their children are marginally more interesting (Francois surprises Michele by describing his father as hypocritical, deceitful, mean and hedonistic), Michele's psychology studies (she's writing a paper on guilt that further links her with Line) complemented by Francois' law degree, but they're too puppyish to be containers of evil. (The film's title is, apparently, random, chosen because it sounded good by the film's producers.) The only character of real depth is the charming Aunt Line, a role that Flon inhabits with warmth. One element of the film which may have provided some character clues, a game of Scrabble, is, most unfortunately, not subtitled.
The film is handsomely photographed by Eduardo Serra ("What Dreams May Come") and production designer Françoise Benoît-Fresco ("Story of Women") gives psychological meaning to locations and the props and costumes associated with the characters. The family home's conservatory is festooned with lattice work and bird cages which imprison family members (Gerard's suit pattern reflects the conservatory walls). When Michele has a fateful meeting with Gerard, he's backgrounded by a portrait of their evil ancestor while she has a seascape above her head, a reminder of her trip with Francois to Line's beach house hideaway.
Despite the complexities of its familial relationships, "The Flower of Evil" is too light a treatment of weighty matters. Still, fans of Chabrol should find small pleasures in one of his lesser works.
Three generations of the Charpin-Vasseur family reside in the family manor in the Bordeaux region of France. Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) is the first generation matriarch. Her niece, Anne (Nathalie Baye), and her husband, Gerard (Bernard Le Coq) make up the second gen. Michele (Melaney Doutey), Anne’s daughter from her first marriage, and Francois (Benoit Magimel), the returning prodigal son of Gerard’s earlier marriage, make up the third. This bourgeoisie household appears perfectly normal but there is a dark, secret past of betrayal, Nazi collaboration and murder in Claude Chabrol’s 50th film, “The Flower of Evil.”
Francois is coming home after practicing law in the United States for the past four years. Gerard picks him up at the airport and, except for his father’s lucrative pharmacy and medical laboratory, things are pretty much the same in town. The young man learns, much to Gerard’s dismay, that his stepmother, Anne, is preparing to run for mayor. When they arrive at Aunt Line’s home, the family’s residence, Francois is reunited with his stepsister, Michele. He left, he tells her at a private moment, because he was getting too close to her.
Anne, in her campaign, is battling both an indifferent constituency and a scandalous flyer that was circulated to discredit her candidacy with rumors of her mother murdering her Nazi collaborator father many decades ago. The father, it seems, was responsible for the death of his son, a member of the Resistance and Line’s beloved brother.
Gerard, who despises his wife’s mayoral run, is the prime suspect of Michele and Francois as the source of the malicious flyers. Gerard, it seems, uses his laboratory to engage in extramarital affairs with his female patients but still resents Anne’s political extracurricular activities. As election day draws to an end, tragedy strikes in the Charpin-Vasseur home but it turns out to be a newfound freedom for Line. The curtain draws to a close on Anne’s victory party.
Chabrol breaks his film up into three parts, with the mayoral campaign, the scandal and the tragedy the pieces of this multi-generational domestic drama. The handsome family, exceedingly normal on the surface, harbors a dark past that has haunted Aunt Line since her father’s murder. Line was accused and acquitted of the crime but has kept something locked deep within for these many, many years. This haunting rears its head in the form of the flyer that may have been the work of Gerard.
Helmer Chabrol handles all this intrigue, even the final crime, in an almost airy, even whimsical manner. With the exception of Suzanne Flon (who gives a complex and appealing performance as Aunt Line) all of the characters are two-dimension, likable, but without substance. This keeps “The Flower of Evil” from attaining the sinister undercurrent that he achieved in “Merci pour le chocolat” with Isabelle Huppert. The slightness of Chabrol’s latest work, for all its machinations of murder and scandal, keeps it from being much more than an OK effort by the master. I give it a B-.
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