"The Flower of Evil" is neither as shocking nor as enlightening as it obviously intends to be — or as it believes itself to be.
Instead, this dramatic thriller is a huge disappointment. Especially coming from French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, whose droll, witty thrillers and mysteries have won favorable comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock.
But unlike most of Chabrol's films, "The Flower of Evil" lacks a sense of humor. And that makes the film's themes about possible incest and dark family secrets quite dour and in questionable taste. (What's worse, they're nothing new — the 2002 Icelandic drama "The Sea" explores these same issues much more effectively.)
"The Flower of Evil" refers to a Baudelaire quote and follows the Vasseurs, a family of wealthy but not necessarily well-respected Bordeaux residents.
Twentysomething Francois Vasseur (Benoit Magimel) discovers that past family scandals can come back to haunt the family, including his stepmother Anne (Nathalie Baye), who is running for mayor. The campaign has gotten ugly as a flier accuses the Vasseurs of, in essence, in-breeding and covering up a murder years before. (Francois' aunt was tried — but found not guilty — of killing her Nazi-collaborator father.)
Meanwhile, Francois is about to do something scandalous himself. Now that he's returned, after years of studying abroad, he's acting on his longtime attraction to his stepsister, Michele (Melanie Doutey), who may actually be a blood relative.
It's clear that Chabrol is trying to make some sort of statement about the imperfections of the so-called privileged class. But his observations lack subtlety, and too often attempts at character development are meandering.
As the embattled candidate, Baye does her best to make this soap opera-like material watchable, but the film doesn't deserve her performance.
"The Flower of Evil" is rated R for scattered use of strong sexual profanity, a brief scene of violence (a bludgeoning), some crude sexual talk and use of sexual slang terms, and use of ethnic slurs. Running time: 100 minutes.