The Flower of Evil (La Fleur Du Mal) (2003)

David Sanjek

Claude Chabrol keeps the forces that threaten to tear the family asunder, for the most part, submerged.

The Flower of Evil (la Fleur Du Mal)

Director: Claude Chabrol
Cast: Natalie Baye, Benoît Magimel, Suzanne Flon, Bernard Le Coq, Mélanie Doutey
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Palm Pictures
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-04-20

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.