Where Baudelaire slurred together sex and death, Claude Chabrol blurs genealogy and morbidity in The Flower of Evil and throughout his profuse career, which by now has turned out 50 features. Another tastefully baroque roasting of petty bourgeois rites within suffocating domestic environs, his latest impassive melodrama begins with a prowl up a winding staircase that, as in La Cérémonie and his previous effort, Merci Pour le Chocolat, can only portend corkscrewing revelations of murder and deceit.
Scaling a family tree snarled and ingrown even by Chabrolian standards, The Flower of Evil opts for Bordeaux’s upper middle classes over urban flaneurs, centering on a comely twosome who evoke the possibly switched-at-birth sleuthing duo of Merci. Michèle (Mélanie Doutey) and François (Benoît Magimel) are cousins, step-siblings, and covert lovebirds, reunited after François’s four-year jaunt practicing law in Chicago. Their father and mother, respectively, died years ago in the same peculiar car crash, leaving the widowed spouses, Anne (Nathalie Baye) and Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), to marry each other. Indeed, the Charpin-Vasseur clan may rival the Kennedys for high mortality rates—not to mention political ambition, since Anne’s running in the local mayoral election. After her parents perished in a plane crash, Anne grew up under the care of her now elderly Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon), who probably killed her collaborationist father, who himself probably killed her adored elder brother . . .
According to Chabrol, Aunt Line’s father stands for Maurice Papon, the Vichy government official who oversaw the deportation of at least 1,600 French Jews from Bordeaux to Auschwitz in 1942-44. (Papon became prefect of the Paris police under de Gaulle; decades later, he finally served just three years of a war-crimes sentence, and was granted a compassionate release in 2002 after dubious assertions of ill health.) The Nazi-abetting dead patriarch casts the first and longest shadow over the film, which starts with a corpse and works backward. Making much of an inflammatory pamphlet—circulated by an anonymous foe of Anne’s campaign—that details her checkered lineage, The Flower of Evil lightly toys with notions of original sin and the heredity of wickedness, though the procedural trips on characterization; Aunt Line, for one, is self-interrogatory, open-minded, and preposterously sweet. Chabrol’s interest typically lies less in psychology than in the fastidious architecture of his redoubling family secrets: Every poison blossom begets its own fraternal twin. So, it seems, does every Chabrol film. Not to imply that our Claude’s gone native, but here his unabiding fascination with bourgie-style repetition compulsion bears some resemblance to sympathy.