After last year’s delectable Merci Pour Le Chocolat, Claude Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil must count as a disappointment. After several years in America, Francois (Benoît Magimel) returns to his family’s home in the Bordeaux region of France, rekindling an old passion with his stepsister, Michèle (Mélanie Doutey). But this is not the extent of the Charpin-Vasseur family tree’s incestuous reach: Michèle’s mother, Anne (Nathalie Baye), married Francois’s father, Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), after their adulterous spouses died in a car crash together in 1981. Elsewhere, Tante Line (Suzanne Flon) is the mysterious auntie who may or may not have been responsible for her Nazi-sympathizer father’s death during WWII. Michèle and Francois come to believe that someone within the family may be sabotaging Anne’s mayoral campaign, and when the skeletons in the family closet begin to rattle, the not-so-wicked melodramas that ensue bring to mind a tame revue of V.C. Andrews’s garden-themed Flowers in the Attic series.
The film’s opening sequence perfectly sets up its final act of dislocation, but everything in between is pretty dull-going. Flower of Evil is mysterious only in theory, insofar as its temporal quality is meant to evoke a flower reaching the peak of its seasonal bloom. Which, I suppose, explains (if not necessarily excuses) the film’s innocuous pacing. Chabrol spends an inordinate amount of time observing the particulars of a local election, though when Anne and her running mate, Matthieu (the director’s son, Thomas Chabrol), visit a low-income housing complex, their run-ins with several tenants do give way to some of the film’s funniest bits. (Because everyone is so inexplicably obsessed with America, could Chabrol be trying to tap into a mainline between his grass-roots election and the Florida voting debacle back in 2000?) In a way, Flower of Evil unravels like a Choose Your Own Adventure, attempting to delight the spectator with the particulars of the Charpin-Vasseur family’s past via the occasional gossip and snide remark. Chabrol has always been hung-up on bourgeois rituals, hypocrisies, and idiosyncrasies, but every observation here is mundane or simply inconsequential to the film’s larger and severely undervalued dialectic of a so-called “perpetual present.”