Does the French New Wave still matter? Does it even still exist? If The Flower of Evil is any indication, the answer is a gratifying oui. Tranquil on its surface, malevolent just beneath it, the latest from Claude Chabrol -- the most accessible of the New Wave founders -- explores the public and the private through a well-positioned French family, who live in a town where they're known by all and quietly abhorred by many.
The current patriarch is Gérard, a 50ish businessman married for some 20 years to his brother's handsome widow, Anne (the always exquisite Nathalie Baye). The first spouse of each was the other's sibling, so their children are now both cousins and step-siblings: Gérard's son is FranÃ§ois, a lawyer just back home after four years in America, whose citizens he found to be warm-hearted, energetic, and obsessed with God and money; and Anne's daughter is MichÃ¨le, a spirited college waif whose snogging flirtation with her raffish cousin/brother (you could bathe in his luxurious cleft chin) soon goes all the way.
Finally, there's old Aunt Line, who cooks lamprey for lunch, tends her lush garden, and lives with the memory of a half-century-old patricide charge of which she was acquitted. The family has buried this sordid past, but its enemies haven't: Anne is running for mayor, and when a burnt soufflé of a poison-pen leaflet materializes, ancient memories naturally stir.
Anne's aloof mayoral campaign is the perfect vehicle for Chabrol's sardonic social commentary: As the candidate stumps door to door in a working-class neighborhood ("the poorer they are, the meaner their dogs"), she offers placid commiserations about noisy apartment-building boilers and missing park benches (both issues, she assures, are on her "program"). One supportive old couple bickers over her family's Nazi past after she leaves; another prole sends her away with expletives through a locked door.
Meanwhile, their private lives play out with a typically Chabrolian coolness and perversity that leads to bloodshed, which comes as no surprise: The Flower of Evil opens with Chabrol's sinister camera gliding omnisciently across the family's bucolic estate and through its front door, up the stairs and down the hallway to find a sanguinary male body in a bedroom.
This visual style is pure neo-Hitchcock, less rigid than the Master in a New Wave way, but never pretentious or intrusive. The movie's imperceptible musical score stalks the characters, as if it's a metaphor for the past: ever-present but out of mind, until suddenly you can't get that old tune out of your head. "Time doesn't exist," Aunt Line teaches her grand-niece. "Life is one perpetual present." The Flower of Evil is good stuff, intelligent and subtle, finely acted and psychologically tense. And while it may not matter like movies once did, at least Chabrol hasn't stopped believing it does.