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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Old Man Claude Chabrol just keeps rolling along.... With 50 films to his credit, this veteran from the vanguard of the French New Wave has cast ashore a real treasure: La Fleur du Mal (2003). Whereas the title evokes an intoxicating whiff of 19th century French poetry and perversity, the toxic perfume of the film itself seeps out from its deceptively simple modern setting.

Died on the Vine

the Charpin-Vasseur family act out a private history of decorous degeneracy
the Charpin-Vasseur family act out a private history of decorous degeneracy

Nestled in the Bordeaux region of present-day France, three generations of the Charpin-Vasseur family act out a private history of decorous degeneracy and destructive relationships. The country manor is in fact a bawdy lair, where the meticulously manicured façade is starting to teeter on its pillars of prosperity. The foundation, however, is built on the unstable cesspool of its filthy past, which threatens to engulf those who inhabit it.

When Anne Charpin-Vasseur (Nathalie Baye) throws her chapeaux in the ring for the town’s mayoral race, an anonymous scribe leaks a scurrilous tract exposing the family’s most scandalous secrets. How does one maintain a good face after getting punched below the belt? Indeed, what kind of spin should be given to the dizzying denouncements of Nazi collaboration, patricide, dirty business dealings, incest, and a string of mysterious deaths, particularly when these accusations are accurate, though decidedly slanted?

Family Affairs

Just how crooked is the back-door medical lab that Daddy Gerard (Bernard Le Coq) profits handsomely from, that is when he’s not out screwing around while his wife stumps for votes? Just how sweet is tart old Tante Line (Suzanne Flon - so sly, spry, and wryly droll that she steals the show with her portrayal of ironclad frailty)? Isn’t it true that she murdered her father, who let his own son (and her brother) die at the hands of the German occupiers during World War II? What to make of handsome, young Francois (Benoit Magimel - freshly graduated from his master class in depravity in the scabrous 2001 The Piano Teacher), the son of Gerard and the stepson and nephew of Anne? Isn’t it a bit ODD, not to mention unseemly, that only one day after returning from his four-year stint in the United States, he runs off for a long weekend to hole up with his nubile stepsister and kissing cousin Michele (Melanie Doutey)? And by the way, what’s up with the bloody stiff in the study at the start of the picture?

Based on the evidence, this overt lineup of suspicious deaths, cover-ups, shady dealings, and political intrigue has all the earmarks of a suspenseful murder mystery. The twist, however, doesn’t come at the end with a tidy resolution of the film’s narrative conundrums. Rather, Chabrol risks scaring off his audience from the get-go by cutting short all sense of expectation and supposed suspense. With bemused detachment, the director ties up all loose ends of the plot before they even have a chance to come undone. Least surprised of all are the central characters themselves, who shrug off the vicissitudes of their self-imposed fates with an air of sanguine nonchalance. Decorum trumps culpability in their acceptance of guilt without shame. Happy-faced hypocrisy is the best form of damage control.

Slow Burn

The pace of this film is restrained in the best European art-house tradition, what over-stimulated Americans might dismiss as “boring.” After all, the story explains itself in the course of its own telling. Just where then, are the thrills and excitement? Chabrol is the master of dark chamber drama, and La Fleur du Mal derives its discordant delectability by building up to a nearly imperceptible crescendo of uneasiness and distasteful delight. The film’s tension results from the confrontation of slowness and thwarted anticipation, in which the deliberate withholding of so-called “suspense” creates its own mystery. The surprise ending (and there is one) is shocking only to the degree that it’s maliciously inconclusive and blunt.

What’s amazing and so thoroughly satisfying about La Fleur du Mal is its merciless yet merry chronicle of a nuclear family’s meltdown. Lies, deceit, and dissimulation are spelled out for us on a scrabble board of intersecting crimes, transgressions, and betrayals. So what if the family tree has dry rot? Nothing could be more fun than to witness the double helix of inherited entanglements spiral completely out of control.

Which proves the point: sometimes watched pots really do boil.