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.





Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.