Famille Fatale 

Incest and death are at the heart of Claude Chabrol's The Flower of Evil.

Familiar themes bubble to the surface in French director Claude Chabrol's latest film, the fiftieth of his prolific career. Perhaps best known for cool, sophisticated suspense thrillers, many starring his former wife Stéphane Audran (Le Boucher, La Femme Infidèle, Les Biches), the 73-year-old New Wave auteur specializes in tales of murder, obsession, adultery, and guilt. Frequently dubbed the French Hitchcock, Chabrol sets many of his films among the bourgeoisie, whom he delights in exposing for their hypocrisies and pretenses.

His latest film, The Flower of Evil, is a rather jaunty affair, a melodrama more than a drama, a thriller only in the lightest sense -- which is not to say that it is not wonderfully entertaining and satisfying. In fact, it is both.

The film centers on the Charpin-Vasseurs of Bordeaux, an upper-middle-class family with a penchant for intermarrying and an unusually high mortality rate. The matriarch of the current household is Micheline Charpin, affectionately known as Aunt Line (a wonderful Suzanne Flon). Her parents, Pierre Charpin and Marie Vasseur, marked the first pairing between the two families.

Also living at the house is Aunt Line's niece, née Anne Charpin (Nathalie Baye), whom Line raised after the death of her sister, and Anne's second husband Gerard Vasseur (Bernard Le Coq). Anne's first husband -- Gérard's brother Jean-Pierre -- was killed in a car accident, along with Gérard's first wife (the two were widely rumored to be having an affair). Widow and widower then married. Michèle (a delightful Mélanie Doutey), Anne's daughter from her first marriage, and François, Gérard's son from his first marriage, were raised together as stepbrother and -sister.

As the film opens, François (Benoît Magimel) is just returning to France after four years practicing law in America. He is particularly happy to see his stepsister, and confesses that one reason he had left France was because he feared that he and Michèle were growing too close. He is uncomfortable with the family history of marrying cousins and siblings-in-law.

He arrives to find that his stepmother is running for mayor, much to the consternation of his father. François has never been close to his father; truth to tell, he doesn't like Gérard very much. Gérard is a womanizer, something Anne seems to just shrug off. She spends most of her time with her campaign aide Matthieu (the director's son, Thomas Chabrol), although there appears to be nothing romantic between them.

Just days before the election, an anonymous leaflet begins to circulate in town with the obvious aim of discrediting Anne. It revives scandalous rumors about the Charpin-Vasseur clan, including the allegation that Aunt Line killed her Nazi-sympathizer father, a key member of the Vichy government who reportedly had ordered the execution of his own son because he was a member of the French Resistance. Pointed reference is also made to the family's habit of intermarrying. François and Michèle, who are tentatively moving toward their own love affair, suspect that Gérard is behind the leaflet.

Visually, the film opens with a lengthy shot of the stately Charpin-Vasseur home. The camera wends its way through the house and up the winding staircase to a bedroom where a man's dead body lies. The film ends with another body in the same room, suggesting that not much has changed in the lives of the family. Is there some sort of family curse? Certainly the different generations of Charpins and Vasseurs seem to share many of the same characteristics, form similar relationships, and repeat many of the same indiscretions, murder of family members being one of them.

Some viewers may consider The Flower of Evil to be Chabrol-lite, but the director proves just as adept with it as he does with his more serious, violent fare. And in Gérard he presents a charming villain whom viewers can enjoy hissing and booing.

All of the performances are wonderful, with Flon, Doutey, and Magimel particularly sympathetic. Partially because of these characters, the movie offers a less harsh portrait of the bourgeoisie than many earlier Chabrol films, although a surprising compassion almost always seeps in. Matthieu Chabrol's jaunty score is particularly well used, dropping in and out, sometimes for just seconds at a time, but always to great effect, as if to accentuate the humorous tone with which Chabrol has chosen to present his story.

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