A femme fatale is in the business of fooling people, though we’ve seen enough of these characters to be overly familiar with their tricks. Maybe that’s why, in 2023, the most effective femme fatale is one who can fool the audience. Take Stéphane (Laure Calamy), the desperate young woman at the center of the delectable French family thriller “The Origin of Evil.” The film’s rather abstract title could refer to several things, but the most accurate is probably the cliché that first leaps to mind: Money is the root of all evil. For money — what it can and cannot do, and what people will do to get it — is the film’s theme, and the toxic life force that courses through it.
When we meet Stéphane, she’s in the women’s locker room of the fish plant she works at on an assembly line; her job consists of placing anchovies in small packages that will be shipped to supermarkets. The writer-director, Sébastien Marnier, moves his camera through a soft-focus layer of rosy steam in a way that can’t help but recall the famous high-school locker-room sequence that opens “Carrie.” And that’s not the film’s only Brian De Palma touch. Marnier makes canny use of split screen, dividing the image into boxes during key conversations. It is, as always if well-used, an arresting device, and while apart from those examples I wouldn’t call “The Origin of Evil” an homage to De Palma (the film is its own faux-aristocratic art-house mystery thriller thing), it shares his spirit of dark play.
Stéphane is financially at the end of her tether. The fish plant is laying people off, and the woman she rents a room from is moving her adult daughter back in, all of which leaves Stéphane penniless and homeless. So she makes the call that she’s been avoiding, the one of official last resort: She phones her father, Serge (Jacques Weber), whom she has never met. He abandoned Stéphane and her mother before she was born; he never sent them a dime. But he agrees to meet with her, and when she travels to the island on which he’s based, she discovers that he’s a wealthy, white-haired, misanthropic old tycoon who owns numerous restaurants and clubs and lives in a splendid villa that looks like it was furnished by Marie Antoinette after a QVC shopping binge.
Serge, we aren’t shocked to learn, is a gruff bastard and womanizer who lives mostly for himself. He’s in poor health, but still radiates power, and he’s got a twinkle in his eye; something in Stéphane speaks to him. We can see what that is, apart from the fact that she’s his daughter. Laura Calamy has a face of disarming sincerity, and she acts with a beguiling touch of insecurity that backs that up. She doesn’t come off like a social climber; she’s more like Cinderella in her downtrodden servant-housecleaner phase — abashed and slightly crestfallen, a collapse-of-the-middle-class refugee with a shy smile that lights up the room almost in spite of itself. Stéphane has come to Serge wanting and expecting nothing, feeling as if she barely deserves his attention. And it’s that quality of self-deprecation that wins him over.
He invites her to lunch at his palatial estate, and that’s where she meets the rest of his family, who may at first strike you as decadent gargoyles out of some Tim Burton version of “Dynasty.” There’s Serge’s wife, Louise (Dominique Blanc), a demon pixie who chooses which couch to sit on (the chartreuse one!) based on how well it goes with her leopard-print dress. She’s the compulsive shopper who has filled their home with bric-a-brac. There’s Serge’s other daughter, George (Doria Tillier), a long-straight-haired corporate killer type who’s in the process of taking over the management of Serge’s businesses, a transition he’s acceded to but isn’t real happy about. There’s the longtime family housekeeper, Agnès (Veronique Ruggia), a moon-faced Victorian frump who does just what you might expect the housekeeper of a treacherous family to do: steals things and gathers information by listening at doors. And there’s the emotionally removed-from-it-all Gen Z granddaughter.
It doesn’t take long to perceive the driving dynamic of this family, which is that Serge is the source of its wealth, and that everyone hates him. (Louise’s expensive shopping addiction is her form of vengeance.) He’s the paterfamilias as self-entitled worldly bourgeois pig, though Jacques Weber endows him with a cultivated Gallic thug charisma. But now that Serge is heading toward his end days, who will get the money?
At first the family members hate Stéphane, too. What could she be but a golddigger who has shown up to connive her piece of the fortune? But Laure Calamy doesn’t play her that way, and the skill of Calamy’s performance is that Stéphane isn’t working to win over the family members in an obvious way. She just seems a poor lost soul (and if she does want some money, that’s not a crime).
Yet there are layers to Stéphane. She has a romantic partner, Nathalie (played by Suzanne Clément, who has the coiled intensity of Lili Taylor in the ’90s). She’s serving time in prison, and Stéphane has stood by her. Midway through the movie, a scene arrives between the two of them that may, momentarily, make you feel like you’re in the middle of “Mulholland Drive.” It’s not as fantastical as all that, but it sets in motion the tricky undertow that pulls the rest of the film forward.
Based on “The Origin of Evil,” I’d call Sébastien Marnier a filmmaker to watch. The movie’s set-up exudes a whiff of devious camp (not just the décor, but the knives-out dramaturgy), but Marnier’s script is accomplished enough to root the backstabbing betrayals and shifting loyalties in the play of personality. Nothing feels overly planned out or farfetched. To be a contempo femme fatale, it seems, is to know what you’re scheming for, but also to go with the flow. Thirty years ago, “The Origin of Evil” might have had its moment as an art-house hit. Ironically, it now has a lower profile than many French films because of the very quality that makes Marnier so promising. He’s an unapologetic entertainer.
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