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ISSUE
  Thursday
173
  April 22
2004
c o n t e n t s
 
 

Get Your ‘Goat’
Love, Loss, Deep Holes and a Goat in SLAC’s Newest (and Best) Production
 

TV Masterpiece 'Freaks and Geeks’ Finally Gets DVD Dues

Upper-Class Murder
‘The Flower of Evil’ Offers More Morbid Fun from Claude Chabrol

 
 
 

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Upper-Class Murder
‘The Flower of Evil’ Offers More Morbid Fun from Claude Chabrol
 
by Jeremy Mathews
 
“Hmm…I think I’m going to have sex with my cousin, or maybe she’s not my cousin. Maybe she’s my half-sister! Alright!”
 

“The Flower of Evil” (“La Fleur du mal”)
Palm Pictures
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff and Louise L. Lambrichs
Produced by Marin Karmitz
Starring Benoît Magimel, Nathalie Baye, Mélanie Doutey, Suzanne Flon, Bernard Le Coq and Thomas Chabrol
In French with English subtitles
Rated R

(out of four)

Claude Chabrol loves to make films about the bourgeoisie’s dark side and the quiet stench of murder. With “The Flower of Evil,” he provides another disturbing, droll, sinister work of secrets. The French New Wave master has never stopped working since he kicked off the movement in 1958, and still hasn’t lost his style. Few other filmmakers would place a dead body between two characters in a key emotional moment and directly follow it with what might have looked like a scare tactic if the characters didn’t start laughing.

“The Flower of Evil” bandies a wealthy family through local politics, scandalous pasts, incest, adultery and, of course, murder.

The son of the family, Francois (Benoît Magimel), returns to his French town after spending three years in America. His father, Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), picks him up and makes small talk, discussing different family members like Anne (Nathalie Baye), apparently Francois’s mother who is running for town mayor, Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) and someone named Michéle (Mélanie Doutey) who he says is very beautiful. The family structure eventually becomes as clear as this particular family can be.

Anne is Francois’ stepmother and Michéle’s mother. After Anne’s husband and cousin died in an accident with Gérard’s wife, Anne married Gérard—yes, her cousin and brother-in-law. Her Aunt Line serves as the family’s consistent source of pleasantry, but we hear voiceovers in her head as she remembers dark moments of the family’s past.

Perhaps Francois left suddenly years ago because of his feelings for his cousin, Michéle, who is still beautiful and was unable to find new love while Francois was gone. They decide to drive out to the family’s vacation home and talk about how Francois once heard his mother say that his father wasn’t his real father. However, although the film confirms it, if Michéle, the daughter of two cousins, isn’t Francois’ cousin, she’s probably his half-sister.

If this family tree didn’t have enough knots, the sleazy stepfather Gérard uses his pharmacy location to seduce young women who look quite a bit like Michéle. The kids suspect him of writing a smear flier against his wife, detailing her family’s history, which includes her grandfather’s Nazi collaboration, which led to his murder, of which Aunt Line was acquitted but considered guilty.

Chabrol doesn’t confirm or deny the family’s justification in their deep hatred of Gérard. His small talk with Francois on the way back from the airport is the same small talk most fathers would have with their newly returning sons. And his disapproval of his wife’s political ambitions isn’t that uncommon either—there’s no evidence that he wrote the flier. While he usually acts like a normal person, the family has been nursing hatred toward him for years.

This ambiguity recalls Chabrol’s “La Cérémonie” (1995) in which a maid becomes increasing angry at her employees while they try to be extremely understanding.
The film turns to the lower class when Anne goes through the chore of campaigning in the low-rent housing area. One of the families there keeps the chair-ridden grandfather closed up in a back room, asking for food whenever somebody opens the door. These people would probably like to gossip and hide family secrets too, if only they didn’t have to worry about their four kids and two jobs. This droll humor, along with his fascination with suspense, has earned Chabrol many comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock.

While Chabrol has always taken cues from Hitchcock, his films are a little less concerned with thrills. His films with violence, of which there are many in his 45-year career, often have only one outburst. His 1970 masterpiece “Le Bucher” doesn’t show its murders, it reports them through hearsay.

Chabrol’s muted approach to storytelling nevertheless creates suspense through the constant feeling that things aren’t right. The opening shot pushes through the lush, privacy-creating trees of the family’s house. Then it goes inside and up the stairs, seeing a woman setting the table on its way up, looking through a door at a person sitting on the floor on its way to the room with a dead body. Later, when the camera pushes through the foliage masking a beach, it creates the same sinister feeling—even though the scene is pretty—with no dead body. Chabrol’s camera very conspicuously adjusts its framing as focus shifts from characters who are standing up to those who are sitting down. In one instance, Chabrol uses a bird cage in the foreground, implying that the characters are trapped.

The entire family is trapped in a cage of personal desires, a haunting history and confusing identities. Chabrol observes that murder isn’t much of a worry for people who have been keeping up appearances under duress for generations.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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