Curse those begonias and their foul presence! Ahem. Judge Patrick Bromley reviews Claude Chabrol's 50th film.
Murder is a family affair.
Watching Claude Chabrol's The Flower of Evil (La Fleur du Mal), I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen it all before—the film suffers greatly from an overwhelming feeling of "been there, done that." Well, with a quick trip over to the Internet Movie Database, I discovered the The Flower of Evil is Chabrol's fiftieth (that's right, fiftieth) full-length theatrical feature. Knowing that, should I be terribly surprised that the whole film feels pretty much like a tired old retread of at least a dozen earlier films?
Ultimately designed as a murder mystery, the plot of The Flower of Evil centers on an aristocratic French family, the Vasseurs (though some are the Charpin-Vasseurs…more on that to come). Only son François (Benoît Magimel) has just returned from a two-year stint in the States, though his reasons for taking off aren't made totally clear early on. Mom Anne (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me if You Can) is returning to politics despite the best wishes of her husband Gérard (Bernard Le Coq, Van Gogh). Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon, Moulin Rouge 1952), the eldest member of the family, may or may not have killed her Nazi-supporter father many years back.
Let's see, is that all? Oh, wait, no—I forgot to mention that the Charpins and Vasseurs have been intermarrying for generations, which usually involves stepbrothers and stepsisters marrying one another. This fine family tradition has actually carried all the way down through the current children, François, Gérard's son, and Michèle (Mélanie Doutey, Leïla), Anne's daughter. Oh—and there's a dead body, but who it is and how it got there remains a secret for most of the film.
Unfortunately, all of the melodrama and intentional plot convolutions don't add up to much. The Flower of Evil is extremely well acted and technically accomplished—a classy film—but isn't able to say or do anything that hasn't already been done by Hitchcock, and with a much sharper wit. The extent of its satire is basically relegated to some dull jabs at Americans and the wealthy French upper class. And while it's never treated with too heavy a hand, accusing them of incest (though the young lovers aren't blood relatives, there is a line of dialogue that hints otherwise) and murder is hardly subtle.
Interesting, though, that the relationship between François and Michèle is treated so sympathetically; in a different film, this would be their story. Their romance is sweet, and the actors are tremendously appealing—let's face it, Mélanie Doutey is the single cutest French girl this side of Audrey Tautou—leaving one to wonder why we are essentially meant to disapprove of the storyline. While I appreciate the fact that Chabrol didn't populate the film with cold-blooded monsters, I still felt that we like this couple too much for them to be targets of true satire.
The DVD of The Flower of Evil comes to us courtesy of Palm Pictures, who generally do good work with the foreign titles they put out. The picture is an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and though it's a bit on the soft side, it manages to work fairly well. There are no visible artifacts or grain, but the colors are somewhat shallow and drab. The Dolby 5.1 audio track, presented in French with English subtitles, services the film just fine—it's entirely dialogue driven. There is only a sampling of extras present, including talent bios (laid out in a "family tree" format), the film's American trailer, and handful of bonus trailers for other Palm titles.
Diehard fans of French murder mysteries or Chabrol completists may want to pick this disc up; anyone else would be just fine if they missed it. Personally, I'd rather watch me some Hitchcock.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
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