French director Claude Chabrol's films usually contain two reliable elements. The first is the languid, privileged life of the bourgeoisie the French so enjoy documenting on film. Even the early Les Bonnes Femmes, which was not about the upper class but about shopgirls, portrayed the girls' lives as stressless lollygagging marked only by shopping adventures and boy concerns.
In that film, made in 1960 (and a fantastic, beautiful record of life in Paris at that time), the surface is punctured at the end by an act of violence, which is Chabrol element number two. Thirty-five years later, La Cérémonie followed the daily affairs of an upper-class household until they also exploded in an act of violence at the end.
It's not a bad formula, for one that Chabrol has been working on for 40-odd years. The various permutations often take the form of the mystery genre, and he has adapted many such novels for the screen. But he seems to best enjoy setting up seemingly perfect (although often corrupt) lives and then, like a golfer out on the lawn sending a well-placed shot through the kitchen window, taking them out in one senseless, hostile moment.
The Flower of Evil gets that all out of the way during the opening credits. Rather than an outside force upending convention, a family has disintegrated into itself, and the act of brutality, which takes place during WWII, is not seen. You see the immediate aftermath, and then the film switches to the present day and begins to examine the effect on the next few generations.
There is no dramatic reveal as to what the incident was, just a simple one via some ingeniously placed exposition. Chabrol does not treat the material as momentous. When Aunt Line says of the household, "Everything's a secret here," she isn't whispering it furtively, but rebuking her son for giving away what she will be serving for lunch. It's a parody of foreshadowing, a parody of a film that would treat such a line seriously.
This lightness of touch keeps the subject fresh, and rather than rely on the shock of violence at the end, Flower lets the blood spatter across decades of lives. Aunt Line lives with her niece and her niece's husband, who is the brother of the niece's first husband --- and that's just the beginning of the family intrigues, which range from quasi-incest to murder. The camera creepy-crawls about their swank existence until the blood specks have been exposed from every crevice, and fresh wounds begin to mount.
When the niece, Anne (Nathalie Baye) decides to run for mayor, it provokes consternation from her husband and an anonymous pamphlet detailing the sordid family history. Anne's stepson has just arrived after self-imposed exile and resumes an affair with his cousin-stepsister that echoes the family past the same way that Anne's political adventure will come to echo former tragedy. All this is patiently overseen by Aunt Line, the bridge to the dark past, played magnificently by Suzanne Flon.
While the Chabrol formula does offer up its usual charms --- watching refined people do bad things --- Flower still threatens to slide into pretentious pointlessness as the past and present are linked in a meaningless thesis. But Chabrol catches himself by the end, deflating the epic reach of the idea with the return of a light touch and with the emerging centrality of Aunt Line's character, who starts the film on the margins and winds up at the heart of it. Flower of Evil screens Friday, May 28, at the Dryden Theatre.
Epic is a better fit for Lawrence of Arabia, a little-known film playing at the Dryden this weekend. If Troy has whetted your appetite for more Peter O'Toole, or for grand, widescreen panorama, the timing is perfect. If you've never seen it, it's more than just sand, horses, and Omar Sharif (that would be Hidalgo). It's a "whale of an epic... kind of a movie opera," David Lean said of his own film, and since he's right, we'll let him.
If you never saw the restored version, now's your chance to see it on the screen. And if you have seen it, you probably won't need persuading to see it again. Lawrence of Arabia screens Saturday, May 29, and Sunday, May 30, at the Dryden Theatre.
--- Andy Davis