Family Portrait with Perverse Humor; Claude Chabrol’s “The Flower of Evil”
by Erica Abeel
A return to form after some recent misfires, Claude Chabrol’s “The Flower of Evil” is good nasty fun, rich in ideas and veined with perverse humor. The 50th feature from this prime mover of the Nouvelle Vague, it’s a kind of distillation of recurring themes from Chabrol’s thrillers of the past several decades: the comfortable corruption of the provincial bourgeoisie; lovely, serene surfaces masking rot and disorder; the opacity of psychological motives; the ambiguity of certain crimes. In “Flower,” Chabrol foregrounds a motif only touched on in previous films: how an unexpiated crime continues to fester, not only in the wrongdoer’s life, but from one generation of the family to the next. Chabrol has even named his clan Charpin-Vasseur, evoking Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart and the novelist’s rather fanciful notion of a family doomed by its tainted genetic inheritance.
Chabrol lays down his core themes from the opening shot: it’s dusk, and the camera travels stealthily as a thief toward a stately French provincial house, while the gravelly voice of a ’40s chanteuse croons about a memory that’s “not what it seems/and haunts you for eternity.” The camera tracks back to a venomous chokeberry, flower of the title, before gliding up the stairs to a corpse sprawled on a bedroom floor, one hand draped over the bed (an image worth retaining, since it’s reprised toward film’s end.)
Cut to young Francois (Benoit Magimel) returning home to Bordeaux after a three year stint as a lawyer in the U.S. It’s soon apparent he’s flown the coop to escape his suffocating clan. But he’s been drawn back by love for his beautiful cousin and step-sister Michele (talk about ingrown!), and feels the moment is right for them to act on it. Francois finds the family, habitually bristling with unvoiced secrets, in full crisis mode: his politico step-mother Anne (Nathalie Baye in a career highpoint) is running for mayor. And this has spawned an anonymous pamphlet detailing past crimes and scandals concerning the Charpin-Vasseurs, including a daughter’s murder of her father, who was a Nazi collaborator. Anne’s lech of a husband Gerard wants her to quit politicking and send the skeletons back to their closet, so he can philander under the radar. Suzanne Flon’s beloved Aunt Line, matriarch of the family, labors to keep the peace, but lives continually haunted by the past and her unresolved guilt over a buried crime. Finally, in a stunning act of violence that dovetails past with present, young Michele’s destiny becomes conjoined with Aunt Line’s. “The more things change,” as they say, “the more they stay the same.”
Chabrol excels at showing characters embedded in their defining environments. Sleazy Gerard weaves eel-like through his sleek pharmacy, underlings looking the other way as he disappears into a backroom reserved for assignations. Accompanied by a sinister sidekick played by Thomas Chabrol (the director’s son), Anne works the housing projects and promises the moon to dubious voters, a resolute smile laminated on her face. (“Not bad for a Nazi-lover’s daughter,” cracks one constituent. “Granddaughter,” his spouse corrects him.) While Aunt Line seems almost an extension of her domaine, the elegantly appointed family seat, with its patina of history. Of course in a Chabrol film, no detail is without significance — so to fete Francois’s homecoming Line fittingly serves up lamprey eel (apparently a local delicacy), which the family gobbles up, though a shot of it is intentionally nauseating. Even in a scrabble game the characters play, the dominant word, center-board, is “outlaw.”
Most suggestive is the plant-choked conservatory, where the family takes after-dinner coffee, posed almost like animals in a jungle habitat. In a shot that prefigures the denouement, Aunt Line and young Michele are framed (and ensnared) by a larger wicker bird cage. The foreboding generated by such images is leavened with sly humor, often at the expense of Americans. When Gerard asks Francois if they smoke in the U.S., the son replies, “Of course, Americans are less dumb than they make out.” On arriving home after his exertions, Gerard always declares, “I’m all worn out” — a refrain greeted by his wife with icy indifference. And the melodramatic climax is subverted by giddiness, when Aunt Line and Michele laugh like hysterical schoolgirls after a corpse they’ve lugged up the stairs starts to slide back down.
It’s gradually apparent that the film’s suspense and mystery elements are red herrings. The question of whether Anne will win the election mainly functions as a narrative throughline to furnish forward momentum, and set up an ironic conclusion — or a teasing lack of one. While the enigma of who wrote the pamphlet skewering the Charpin-Vasseurs simply gets lost in the shuffle (more important, the family suspects Gerard.) Rather, Chabrol uses the thriller genre to explore such notions as the blind repetitions that bind this family. Not only does murder recur, but incestuous pairing, too; Francois and Michele come together in scenes both cloying and erotic, enacting a taboo from two generations back. Since the family can’t break the mold, it’s as if the past, as Aunt Line says, doesn’t exist, only a perpetual present.
Chabrol probes as well the ambiguous nature of Aunt Line’s crime. Not only was her father a “collabo” (recalling one Maurice Papon, another Bordelais) — he indirectly killed the man she loved. So if Line’s crime was in some sense “justified,” can it also be expiated? According to co-writer Caroline Eliacheff, the film concerns a woman acquitted of a crime she committed, who will then take the rap for a crime that she didn’t commit. We’re deep into the Gallic taste for paradox and symmetry — and also the expiation of guilt through sacrifice, Christian notions scarcely seen so explicitly in Chabrol’s work since his earliest films.
The cast performs with exuberant polish as if born to these roles. As the prodigal son, handsome Benoit Magimel conveys critical awareness of the folly around him by his gaze alone. Bernard Le Coq turns Gerard — pig-eyed, evasive, and self-satisfied — into a caricature reminiscent of Moliere. As Francois’s lover, Melanie Doutey exudes both freshness and hothouse decadence. As Anne, Nathalie Baye caps her many past triumphs with a comic briskness that verges on hysteria, and her ability, essential in Chabrol, to inject benign statements with menace. Champion of the young lovers, Suzanne Flon is no little-old-lady from a studio film; she’s powerful, beautiful, and fills the screen with her tiny frame. It should be noted that the whole film is a family affair: along with Thomas as actor, Matthieu Chabrol composed the ominous score; Chabrol’s wife was script supervisor, and his daughter-in-law was assistant director. Is this collective effort perhaps the healthy creative parallel to the film’s ingrown Bordelais?
And does “Flower” at moments feel creaky because Chabrol sometimes spells out his ideas in boldface, as if the audience were a bit dense? Francois even remarks flat out they’re a family out of Zola. The melodramatic plot points sometimes cohabit uneasily with the film’s realistic detail. And many viewers may find the French provincial mindset downright medieval, especially Francois’s chauvinistic division of the world into foreigners, or girls you grope, and the ones who live just down the hall that you marry.
Minor quibbles, though. Chabrol has said that each of his films should be seen as a piece in a puzzle. The far less satisfying “Merci pour le Chocolat” (2000) was in many ways a rehearsal for “Flower,” which in turn approaches the mastery of “La Ceremonie” (1995). It’s also more tightly structured, with the engine of destruction coiled within. In “La Ceremonie” it took two alienated members of the underclass to bludgeon a family. In “Flower,” the family does the job on itself.