The Flower of Evil director Claude Chabrol—one of the founders of the influential French “New Wave” movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s—counts landmark films like Le Beau Serge and Les Biches among his 50 features over a 50-year career. He was also one of the Cahiers du Cinema writers whose work, among other things, popularized the “auteur” theory and championed Jerry Lewis as one of the world’s great directors. So he still has a lot to answer for.
The punch line might pack more zing if the New Wave didn’t seem like a fossilized film history footnote to most contemporary moviegoers—assuming, that is, they’ve heard of the New Wave at all. It might surprise those on the periphery that the New Wave ain’t all past-tense. Chabrol and his Cahiers contemporaries Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette continue to be prolific contributors to world cinema well into their 70s (and in Rohmer’s case, his 80s). Nobody’s about to relegate them to textbook entries; as artists, they’ve still got things to say.
The sadder side of their late-period work: Maybe they’re now just saying the same things in a slightly different way. In The Flower of Evil, Chabrol concocts yet another riff on the dark secrets of the bourgeoisie. It’s cool, artfully crafted, and ultimately pretty familiar if you’ve seen any Chabrol at all.
At least, he doesn’t waste any time letting you know a crime will be involved, sweeping through a lovely Bordeaux home until the camera comes to rest on a dead body. Flashing back, we discover that this will only be the latest skeleton in the Charpin-Vasseur family closet. Anne (Nathalie Baye) is running for mayor, her candidacy plagued by anonymous leaflets alluding to inter-familial murder. Her husband GÃ©rard (Bernard Le Coq)—the brother of Anne’s dead first husband—barely tolerates Anne’s political aspirations while philandering with whatever woman is at hand. And Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) tries to hold things together while being haunted by her own unpleasant memories).
Into this mess steps FranÃ§ois (BenoÃ®t Magimel), GÃ©rard’s son who has spent three years practicing law in America before deciding to return home. He also returns to something he had tried to escape—the mutual attraction between him and his stepsister/first cousin MichÃ¨le (MÃ©lanie Doutey).
Only in a Claude Chabrol-penned family would incest be the least of their worries. Nobody seems to bat an eye when FranÃ§ois and MichÃ¨le slip away for a seaside weekend and begin flaunting their handholding and starry-eyed smooches; on the contrary, Aunt Line in particular almost seems pleased that the family tradition of intermarriage may continue. The Flower of Evil finds Chabrol still effectively skewering the oblivious bubble of self-styled European royalty. In one clever sequence, Anne campaigns uncomfortably in a low-income housing development, smiling dutifully through stories about common folks’ problems while whining that her door-to-door work “feels like begging.” These are people who, not surprisingly, think they can get away with anything—including murder.
The problem is that once the furtive doings begin in earnest, there’s almost no sense of consequence. In a sense, that’s part of Chabrol’s point—when a family has been able to make its own rules for generations, nobody’s terribly worried about another dead body more or less. Yet considering Chabrol’s longstanding reputation as “France’s Hitchcock” (he and Rohmer penned a seminal text on Hitch’s oeuvre) and his many fine psychological thrillers, there’s little here that qualifies as particularly psychological or particularly thrilling. It feels like Chabrol is going though the motions of choreography he’s performed many times over half a century, most recently in 1995’s La CÃ©rÃ©monie.
The old master can still trot out a few prime moments of morbid humor, as when two characters fumble with a corpse they’re trying to dispose of and wind up bursting into laughter. But not nearly enough of The Flower of Evil boasts that kind of vitality. The solid performances and flawless production can’t erase the essential placidity of the enterprise—and if there’s one thing the vintage New Wave films never could be accused of, it’s placidity. When GÃ©rard smugly opines, “People living like hypocrites ... that’s what you call ‘civilization’,” you get the sense even the director knows it’s a point he’s made over and over again.
THE FLOWER OF EVIL, **.5, Nathalie Baye, BenoÃ®t Maginmel, Suzanne Flon, Not Rated