Claude Chabrol has become, over the last 40 or more years, the most industrious surviving member of the French New Wave. Certainly, he’s the most comfortable with the demands and rewards of commercial cinema. He has made more than 50 films, surviving periods of critical adulation as well as neglect. From the start, he committed himself to the thriller, following one his mentors, Alfred Hitchcock. He revels in constructing complex behavioral puzzles that entrap his self-absorbed characters, typically members of the French bourgeoisie. His films combine a cynical view of the foibles of the well-endowed with a delight in delineating their luxuries, particularly those of a gastronomic nature. A lifelong gourmet, Chabrol includes sumptuous meals in virtually all his films, if only, one imagines, in order to sample the fare once the shot is completed.
Like Hitchcock, Chabrol possesses an acute visual sensibility, and even when his work lacks narrative inspiration, the acuity of his eye never falters. Take, for example, the final shot of his La Femme Infidele (1968), in which a husband slays his wife’s lover, only to find his marriage all the more secure after the deed. As the murderer is taken away by the police, Chabrol places his camera in the rear of the vehicle and executes a simultaneous forward and reverse zoom, memorably conveying how he simultaneously is separate from, yet indissolubly joined to, his family. Or again, in his masterful and mournful Le Boucher (1970), a sociopath falls in love with a reclusive schoolteacher. Her irrevocable isolation from her glorious pastoral world is reinforced by three shots that transfer her point of view deeper and then deeper again into the environment she can never wholly inhabit.
Flower of Evil, newly released on an extras-free DVD by Palm Pictures, focuses on the upscale Charpin-Vasseur clan, who reside in the Bourdeaux region of France. Chabrol’s opening image is a point-of-view tracking shot that takes in the luxury of the family’s home only to conclude on a dead body. The story follows François (Benoît Magimel), returned from four years of legal practice in America. His father, Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), retrieves the young man from the airport and points out how little the town has changed in his absence. His family, however, has experienced some substantial transition. His stepmother, Anne (Nathalie Baye), is running for mayor, and Gérard has expanded their medical business by opening a laboratory next to a pharmacy. François’ stepsister and first cousin, Michèle (Mélanie Doutey), has grown into an assured and beautiful young woman, now studying at university.
The mayoral contest produces a flier that dredges up rumors about Anne’s family, calling her father a Nazi and insinuating that her mother killed him. Though Anne does nothing to combat the rumors, her daughter and stepson, who now resume a truncated romantic relationship, wonder if Gérard, who abhors his wife’s fascination with public affairs (as well as the time she spends with her running mate, Matthieu [Thomas Chabrol]), might have been the author. They have reason to worry about him, as well as his relationship with Anne, for Gérard quite openly engages in affairs.
The parallel between the present-day machinations and insinuations about the past particularly trouble the seemingly placid Tante Line (Suzanne Flon). Rather than interrupting his narrative with the customary visual flashback, Chabrol trains his camera upon Tante Line’s aged features to illustrate her troubling memories through a tumble of voice-overs. What she recalls indicates that the author of the scandal sheet possesses access to facts the family would just as soon forget.
The collisions between yesterday and today and building ferocity of romantic desire reach their climaxes with the election. As Anne awaits the results, the other family members act out a complex scenario of vengeance and regret that not only clarifies what has been insinuated about their respective past lives, but also casts in stone how they will relate to one another in the future.
For a film illustrating such volatile emotions, Flower of Evil is on its surface rather placid. Chabrol keeps the forces that threaten to tear the family asunder, for the most part, submerged. The characters rarely raise their voices, and even François and Michèle’s romance, with its insinuation of incest, doesn’t seem indecorous. The film provides an ironic contrast to the Charpin-Vasseur family’s camouflage of their excesses with the overtly unstable life of the working class families Anne visits in search of votes. While their domestic chaos is visible, from the psychological abuse of aged parents to the unchecked vehemence of children, it only underlines the cruelty of her own relations.
Chabrol keeps his distance from his privileged protagonists, treating their scandalous behavior with a kind of malicious, if muffled, glee. In the end, the narrative is less about either murder or malevolence than guilt; it considers how the family members choose to live with the consequences of their actions, instead of focusing on the actions themselves. We come to understand the Charpin-Vasseur family as victims of their own passions. Because he manipulates his characters with the dispassionate vehemence of a lepidopterist, they remain a bit inert in the memory, clad in their designer finery and committed to their whims, whether motivated by romance, revenge or appetite for political power.
In his best work, such as the aforementioned Le Boucher or Que La Bete Meure (1969), in which the protagonist insinuates himself into the life of the man who has killed his son, Chabrol encourages the viewer to be both appalled and moved by the depths to which individuals might sink. By contrast, the Charpin-Vasseur clan invites our disdain, yet never elicits our compassion. The body we observe in the opening shot may sully the superficial order of their lives, but the universe they inhabit will survive the loss of one member.