Many years ago a friend of mine commented that she did not understand why anyone would read a book or see a film more than once; surely, she implied, we all have better things to do with our time. That her literary and cinematic tastes differ greatly from mine might be an easy inference by regular readers of these pages, but the matter is more complex than it might seem. We repeat activities that we enjoy, sometimes owing to the content of the activity, othertimes to the memory of the very first experience (some high-profile drugs apparently pertain to the second category). Do we watch films for added information and perspective or simply to repeat a high like the reviewing of a wedding video? Are we drawn in retrospect to films that supported our ideals at the time or the ideals that we have developed with age? The question is indeed complex, because it skirts that rather nebulous pond as to why we read at all. Modern critics will inevitably tie our reading habits to the indulgence of our worst neuroses (modern critics, it should be said, think little of us and less of themselves), and could not possibly imagine that certain people would want to edify themselves from the pure joys of artistic creation. Nor could their jargon-addled brains ever describe what real artistic pleasure entails since they are bound by edicts thankfully unclear to us to reduce everything to some theory of social, sexual, or national gibberish. We, however, have no such restrictions. It is possible for us to watch and re-watch a film about a well-heeled but highly unorthodox family in southwest France and revel in the strangeness of its details. Their life is unlike ours but needs no category, and the film in question is this unusual production.
We begin with the return from the United States of a prodigal son, François Vasseur (Benoît Magimel). Apart from good looks, money, and the swagger that studying halfway around the world usually begets, François has a certain surliness to him that we also see in the person who picks him up from the airport, his louse of a father Gérard (played up rather filthily by Bernard Le Coq). Gérard has no redeeming qualities about him. He ensnares his son in petty arguments as soon as he arrives, talks up the town council campaign of his second wife, Anne (Nathalie Baye), with inappropriate sarcasm, and generally gives the impression of someone who only likes money, power and being right. His grin indicates something more: he envies the youth of his son because his son's obvious attractiveness allows him countless opportunities with members of the opposite sex. If he accomplishes nothing else in life – especially considering that most of life has already been accomplished for him – François is determined not to be like his father. He may get along with his stepmother, but his real interest (and a typical attraction given the circumstances) is his stepsister Michèle (Mélanie Doutey). Modern critics' pedestrian conclusions regarding the deep-seated need for such a relationship notwithstanding, its occurrence in real life is rather frequent for one very good reason: both participants know beforehand that it will never work out (some people purposely seek out married partners to afford themselves the same exit strategy). That said, François and Michèle really, really like one another. Their desires have certainly been abetted by François's prolonged absence, but they do not hide what they want to do to one another and what life would be like if they could just be left to their own devices. And they never get the chance they want, or, I should say, as many chances as they want, because of that electoral campaign.
The campaign is for a spot on the council of a small town in Bordeaux, an uninspiring if quaint dominion for a woman who has everything. Anne is undoubtedly that type of woman, and one gets the impression that the position replaces her need to buy fine clothes or dine out at expensive restaurants. The fact that the town severely lacks both of these amenities makes her turn towards politics all the more likely. Through Anne, who is elegant, pleasant, and pretty if self-absorbed in a harmless way, we begin to perceive the outlines of a far graver concern than the lascivious misdeeds of the stepsiblings. "Everything in this family is a secret" (said more than once) seems to be the motto of a home formed twenty years ago when Anne's husband and Gérard's wife were killed in the same car accident. And so we are hardly surprised to learn that someone has been writing poison pen letters against Anne indicating that her family has a sullied history, a history that may have bottomed out during this regime. Although she lets on that she knows who is behind the accusations, Anne proceeds undeterred in her ambition to govern, if that is the right word. After all, shouldn't a politician, especially of a somewhat backwater locale, be representative of the rabble? Wouldn't the modest dimensions of such power not suffice for someone accustomed to the finer things in life? But Anne will not be denied. Even when she visits low income housing and displays her utter lack of sympathy with and knowledge of the plight of the everyday, we understand that she and her reptilian campaign manager (Thomas Chabrol, the director's son) will stop at nothing to ensure her election. She shakes a few hands, pets a few children reluctantly on the head, and tries to stay positive about her chances in a manner reminiscent of a shopper bent on getting what she wants even if it means rummaging through every shelf in every store. This dominative drive does not ebb even in the face of Gérard's unabashed opposition – at which point we consider a rather hideous probability and then put the matter aside as the streams of thought convene into a large pool. The only question is whether we actually have the intestinal fortitude to look down to the bottom of that pool for old bones.
The critical reception of La Fleur du Mal was decidedly mixed, perhaps owing to a couple of contrivances that surface in the film's final scenes. Its subtleties more than make up for its plot twists, and there is a sense of justice in the personal choices a couple of the characters make in the end. Chabrol has directed better and more profound pieces, but few that contain all the elements of a thriller and yet slip into a literary study from a series of perspectives. The titular reference to this French poet might have to do with the nature of the crimes committed, or simply with a cynical and apprehensive view of humanity in general. I have also intentionally refrained from mentioning one last character who plays a valuable role in our realization of the truth, even though an attentive viewer might guess the truth early on. And given the weird clusters of details about this family, the truth may seem rather banal.