We are the eyes of the camera, moving from the dark shadows of trees, across a gravel driveway, through the entrance of a large house, past an open door where a maid is setting out dishes on a table, up the stairs and past a room where a young woman is sitting on the floor, clasping her knees, down the hallway and into a bedroom, then past the corpse on the floor to focus on his hand grasping the coverlet. All the while we hear a cheap, romantic song coming from a radio somewhere in the house...
comes to you in your dreams
but it is not what it seems
and haunts you for eternity.
makes you believe he has never gone
that there's no need to grieve
and that the past lives on.
The Flower of Evil (La Fleur du Mal) is an almost elegiac Claude Chabrol movie that starts with a dead man and finishes with our understanding of how he came to be dead. In 101 minutes between these two points we find ourselves in the lives of a family whose secrets seem to repeat themselves. This isn't so much a mystery as a parable of inevitability. It also is a movie of deliberate story-telling. It takes its time as we observe the Charpin-Vasseur family. What a family it is. Chabrol once again opens the window to let the stale air of the French grande bourgeoisie out of the room. You may need a family chart to keep things straight at first, and one is provided as an extra on the DVD as well as in an insert.
Anne Charpin-Vasseur (Nathalie Baye) is running for the office of mayor. She is married to Gerard Vasseur (Bernard Le Coq). They married after their spouses, who had been having an affair with each other, were killed in a crash. Anne has a daughter from that first marriage, Michele Charpin-Vasseur (Melanie Doutey). Gerard has a son from his first marriage, Francois Vasseur (Benoit Magimel). Francois has been in America for three years and has just returned. The family lives in a fine country home with Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon). Anne is in for a nasty surprise when an anonymous letter accuses her publicly of being from a family whose members were Nazi collaborators, informers, unethical about they ways they made their money, and a family with a taste for brother-sister incest. Of course, it's all true. Francois and Michele, within a day of his return, not exactly a brother and sister but at least as close as cousins, have become lovers, aided by Aunt Line. She, in fact, in her youth was suspected of having killed her father, the collaborator, who sent his son, Line's brother, to his death when the young man joined the Resistance. You can see how a family chart can come in handy.
For the length of this movie we observe the family...the drive of Anne to be elected mayor, the womanizing of her husband who is always charming, the disdain of Francois for his father, the times Aunt Line can drift into a momentary reverie when we share with her the voices from her past. And that's largely what happens, slowly and deliberately, bit by bit, as we patch pieces together until, an hour and twenty minutes into the film, we encounter a woman hitting a man with a vase, two women dragging him up the stairs and into a bedroom, and one of the women taking his hand to twist the fingers into the coverlet. "I feel as if I am doing things backward," says one of the women. We realize that, with her life, she is. When she tries to comfort the other, she can only hold the other woman's face in her hands and say, "Oh, my dear, time doesn't matter. You'll see. Life is one perpetual present."
I found the movie to be a fine example of Chabrol's craftsmanship and storytelling. As often with Chabrol, it's the women who dominate the story. Nathalie Baye and, particularly, Suzanne Flon, provide the energy and the calm that make the movie work. Flon, 85 when she made the movie, gives us an almost fragile Aunt Michelina, a woman who has seen and done many things in her life, and who has in the present so many echoes of her past. If Baye tends to dominate the first half of the movie, Flon serves up the second half on a platter for us.
This is the kind of movie that some will say, "Nothing happens." They'd be wrong.
The DVD transfer is adequate; the picture is softer than it should be. There are no significant extras. Do yourself a favor, however, and study the family chart of the Charpin and Vasseur families. It will simplify considerably the first 20 minutes or so of the movie.
on 13 December 2006
"The flower of evil" (= "La fleur du mal"), directed by Claude Chabrol, is centered on an upper middle-class family, the Charpin-Vasseurs. This family seems perfect but has dark and deep secrets, as seen from the very first scenes of this movie. What is wrong with the members of this family? Chabrol's mission is to make us care about the answer to this question...
The story begins with a crime, and continues many years later, when Francois Vasseur (Benoît Magimel), returns home after spending four years in the United States. Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), his father, is happy to see Francois again, but disturbed by the fact that his wife Anne Charpin-Vasseur (Nathalie Baye) is involved in politics and running for mayor. Francois doesn't have a very good relationship with Gérard, but is pleased to see his stepmother Anne, his aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) and specially his stepsister and first cousin Michèle (Melanie Doutey).
Truth to be told, Francois left France because he had strong feelings towards Michèle, feelings she reciprocated. Is he now ready to act on those feelings? And what impact will that relationship have on the dynamics of his family, already disturbed by Anne's incursion into politics and old scandals that surface again? "The flower of evil" answers these questions, and tackles subjects such as the cyclical nature of life, the importance of secrecy in some lives, guilt and the need to keep up appearances ("il faut faire belle figure").
All in all, I think that this film will interest those who are fond of whodunnits, but that can also appreciate complex psychological studies that make a movie more interesting. Of course, recommended.
This is a pleasant film by Claude Chabrol, nothing like the forbidding title "La Fleur du Mal" would suggest. I say pleasant in that there is nothing gross or ugly about it or really shocking, and it ends in a way that most viewers would find agreeable. There is some dark suggestion of family evil and a kind of playful non-incest and some skeletons in the closet from the Nazi occupation and one dead man at the end, but otherwise this is almost a comedy.
It is not, however, in my opinion his best work, but is very representative. My favorite Chabrol film is Une affaire de femmes (1988) starring Isabelle Huppert and Francois Cluzet. I also liked La Cérémonie (1995) featuring Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert and Jacqueline Bisset. Both of these are much darker works than The Flower of Evil.
As in many Chabrol films this starts slowly but manages to be interesting thanks to some veracious color and characterization blended with a hint of the tension to come. And then, also characteristic of Chabrol, there is a interesting finish.
Nathalie Baye plays Anne Charpin-Vasseur, who in her fifties decides to run for mayor. Her philandering husband Gérard (Bernard Le Coq) is not pleased. Benoit Magimel plays the prodigal son Francois Vasseur, just home after four years in the US, while Melanie Doutey plays his non-biological sister Michele. Francois apparently ran away to the States to cool his growing attraction to Michele (to her disappointment). Now on his return their love blooms.
This is very much approved of by Aunt Line (played wonderfully well with spry energy by Suzanne Flon who was 85 years old when the film was made). Their affair reminds her of her youth, a mixed blessing since she lived through some horrors.
The main plot concerns the opposition that Anne is getting as she runs for mayor. A leaflet accusing the family of collaboration with the Nazis during WWII is distributed that threatens to derail her campaign.
See this for one of France's great ladies of both film and the theater, Suzanne Flon, who died last year after a career than spanned five decades.
La Fleur du Mal aka The Flower of Evil isn't quite Chabrol on auto-pilot, but he's clearly more interested in the usual bourgeois side issues than the identity of the author of an anonymous leaflet that threatens Natalie Baye's campaign to become mayor of a small town by raking over the coals of the family's history of murder and Nazi collaboration. History is obviously going to repeat itself, but there's no sense of impending dread, merely a feeling that Chabrol has left himself too little time to remember the plot and wrap it up. Thus we get a somewhat hurried finale that feels practically like an afterthought - you can almost imagine him looking at his watch and thinking "Is that the time? I'd better kill someone so we can all go home." It's at its best dealing with local politics and petty ambitions on the campaign trail, and Baye and Suzanne Flon have the best of the film, but Chabrol's reunion with La Ceremonie scripter Caroline Eliacheff seems far more a time-filler than an essential.