Outwardly, the Charpin-Vasseurs, who live in the Bordeaux region of France, are a fine upstanding family. Inwardly, they're a bloody mess. And that's pretty much the theme of Claude Chabrol's The Flower of Evil, which, like many of the films in Chabrol's decades-long career, both skates the surface and periodically plunges the depths of French bourgeois life. The movie opens with one of those house-prowling tracking shots through well-appointed rooms, finally arriving at a body lying on the floor, a discreet pool of blood framing the head. Then we're introduced to the Charpins, the Vasseurs and the Charpin-Vasseurs -- five of them in all, composing one of the most complexly interwoven families this side of Windsor Castle. Anne (Nathalie Baye) is married to Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), but it's a second marriage for both, their first spouses having died in a mysterious car crash. And as if that weren't enough, Anne's daughter, Michèle (Mélanie Doutey), is secretly involved with Gerard's son, François (Benoît Magimel).
Actually, it's much more complex than that, but I'll leave it to you to untangle the branches of the Charpin-Vasseur family tree. Instead, I'll simply point out that history keeps repeating itself, the result of both good breeding and, perhaps, even better inbreeding. What gives the movie its kick, though, is the way Chabrol keeps up appearances, doing everything he can to keep the family's dirty laundry from flapping in the breeze. Nevertheless, flap it does, when Anne's campaign for mayor of the small town the Charpin-Vasseurs call home is hit with an anonymous letter that chronicles the family's various faux pas dating back to the Nazi occupation of France. Which brings us to Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon), the gray-haired matriarch who presides over the movie with a subtle blend of elegance and decadence. Over the years, Aunt Line has become expert at sweeping things under the carpet. The trick is to dazzle everyone with your trés-jolie smile while concealing the hand that holds the broom.
Chabrol has been called the French Hitchcock, but The Flower of Evil is closer to the work of Luis Buñuel -- a satiric swipe at what Buñuel, in one of his most outrageous comedies, called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Some may find the movie a little undercooked; it's not very suspenseful. Others will relish the well-mannered cruelty with which the Charpin-Vasseurs conduct their public and private lives.