Dir. Claude Chabrol. France. 2003. 104mins.
Opinion is likely to differ on Flower Of Evil (La Fleur Du Mal), the new opus from Claude Chabrol, one of the soundest names in Gallic cinema. His numerous admirers will once again appreciate this insidious ironic study of the provincial bourgeoisie, while detractors will complain its plot is mostly derivative, static and too deeply buried beneath the demure respectability of its characters. Superb photography, elegant design and a solid cast, is certain to carry this carefully polished effort through its initial release in France, where MK2 releases it on Feb 19, as well as other Francophone territories. The rest of the world however may prove more reserved in its enthusiasm.
Despite the fact that the original story, by Caroline Eliacheff and Louise Lambrichs, is a family chronicle spanning three generations, the film takes place in the present, aside from some brief aural flashbacks. The focus falls on the upper middle-class Chardin-Vasseurs, who live in a gentrified country residence outside a small town near Brodeaux, over the space of two weeks prior to local elections.
Despite being one of the most respected clans in the area, the family have a closet full of clanking skeletons, including collaboration with the Nazis in WW2, patricide, incest, mysterious deaths and other such sweet perversities.
The husband (Bernard Le Coq) is a pharmacist and obsessive philanderer, while his wife (Nathalie Baye) is an ambitious politician running for mayor and having an affair with her assistant (Thomas Chabrol). The couple, both widowed at the same time when their previous partners suspiciously died together, each their respective offspring; the father a son (Benoit Magimel) and his wife a daughter (Melanie Doutey), each in their 20s and engaged in an affair of their own. The fifth member of the household - and the most likeable - is an elderly aunt (Suzanne Flon), suspected in her youth of having murdered her father but released due to lack of evidence.
Chabrol is in perfect control of every shot and every angle, seamlessly tied together in an elegant, ironic visual style, as he leads his cast in a merry go round, apparently amused by their feelings of self-confident superiority and their insistent attempts to reject guilt (with one noticeable exception). Sinister elements - the corpse at the beginning of the first act, the poison pen tracts distributed that reveal the family's past in the second act - perhaps indicate he wishes to turn the story into something of a thriller, and if this is not fully achieved then it is only for the lack of a compelling motive to drive the plot forward. Neither the outcome of the election campaign nor the identity of the poison pen seem to concern anyone that much.
Chabrol does not really encourage sympathy for any of his characters, although he evidently prefers the old aunt, exquisitely played by veteran Flon. The others are too egotistically occupied in satisfying their personal whims to really care about anything else but themselves. However, the lack of a strong central plot that will shake the characters out of their apparent complacency, finally limits the overall scope of the exercise.
As perceptive a social analysis as any of Chabrol's recent films and as vitriolic as ever, Flower Of Evil covers everything from amorality in personal life to doubtful ethics in public life. Allusions range from more general ones about the current state of French politics to the infamous Maurice Papon, the Bordeaux chief of police whose collaborationist past recently surfaced again in the French media,
Technical credits are superlative, the locations are gorgeous and, as in any Chabrol film, it is hard not to envy the cast for all the obligatory meals served during the course of proceedings.
Prod co/sales: MK2 Productions
Co-prod: France 3 Cinema
Prod: Marin Karmitz
Scr: Caroline Eliacheff, Louise L Lambrichs, Chabrol
Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Ed: Monique Fardoulis
Prod des: Francoise Benoit-Fiesco
Music: Matthieu Chabrol
Main cast: Nathalie Baye, Bernard Le Coq, Benoit Magimel, Suzanne Flon, Mélanie Doutey, Thomas Chabrol