Laure Calamy has amazing screen presence. She may not have the elegance of Catherine Deneuve or Fanny Ardant in their heydays, but she has charmed the French box office so effectively that, at the age of 48, she seems to be in every second movie. Naturally suited to comic roles, Calamy can turn on the drama in the blink of an eye – a talent given full scope in Sébastien Marnier’s The Origin of Evil, in which she plays Nathalie, an ingratiating, unscrupulous con artist.
This movie has been touted as a comedy, but the humour is stretched thinly over a heavy weight of mystery and tension. Think Claude Chabrol and Patricia Highsmith, and that brand of bleak irony which clings to a protagonist who tries to outsmart everyone and seems always on the brink of overplaying their hand. It’s almost chilling to watch Calamy’s efforts to win the trust of a wealthy family that resembles a small anthology of personality disorders.
Marnier accentuates the murkiness of the story by withholding vital information at the beginning. It takes time to learn who Nathalie really is, and the nature of her relationships. It’s a pleasurable confusion for the viewer, but I can offer a few shortcuts.
The setting is the Côte d’Azur. Nathalie is an ex-con who works on an assembly line at a cannery, stuffing anchovies into tins. She has a tricky relationship with her temperamental girlfriend, Stéphane (Suzanne Clément) who is still in prison and refusing to see her when she visits. A more pressing problem is that she is being thrown out of her rented room by a landlady who is trying to reunite with an estranged daughter.
Soon we find broke, homeless Nathalie on the resort island of Porquerolles, meeting with a large, bear-like man with grey hair and beard, who calls her “Stéphane”. This man is Serge Dumontet (Jacques Weber), Stéphane’s natural father, who hasn’t seen her since she was an infant. He is a wealthy entrepreneur who has made his money in high-end restaurants. We learn that Serge was always “popular with the women”, resulting in a string of affairs and failed marriages, but his aggressive, virile personality has lately been undone by a stroke that has left him partially incapacitated.
Serge seems genuinely pleased to see “Stéphane” again, and insists she comes back to his mansion and meet the rest of the family. First up is his wife, Louise (Dominique Blanc), who assuages her boredom with obsessive tele-shopping that has left the house crammed with stuffed animals and unopened packages. Next is Serge’s daughter, George (Doria Tillier) who has returned from Australia to manage the business while her father was out-of-action. She has been so successful she now wants full control.
George’s daughter, Jeanne (Céleste Brunnquell) is a moody teenager who aspires to be a photographic artist. She tells Nathalie that family is “like a poison seeping through your veins…” which seems a fairly accurate description of the Dumontet clan.
The group is rounded out by the matronly housekeeper, Agnés (Véronique Ruggia), who is indispensible to Louise, but routinely pilfers from her stash of pointless treasures.
The missing family member is a son, who left when his homosexuality was revealed, never to return. Serge’s longing for a male heir is obvious in the way his daughters each have mascuine names.
The underlying drama is that the women in the household want Serge to be declared medically and legally incapable of managing his affairs, leaving George in command. But Serge is not willing to cede his patriarchal authority to this tribe of females and believes he can use the prodigal “Stéphane” to assist his cause. Nathalie, for her part, is only too happy to play the faithful daughter, especially as the rest of the family is so openly hostile to her. When she departs for the mainland, George tells her bluntly: “Don’t come back”.
But she will come back, spinning an ever-more complicated tangle of lies, letting everyone believe she is really the owner of the cannery where she works. She also comes to understand that Serge, the rediscovered doting father, has his own hidden agenda. We only get hints of his brutal nature, but it’s clear that George’s sour, nasty personality, and Louise’s battiness are a direct result of their lives with Serge.
To add a final twist, while Nathalie works to insert herself into the family, trying to be useful with Serge, and sympathetic with Louise, the real Stéphane begins to miss her lover and wonder why she has become so hard to contact.
As the masks fall away, and the family prepares for a crucial session with the magistrate, events threaten to spiral out of Nathalie’s control – but she has come too far to allow this to happen.
The Origin of Evil will remind you of lots of other movies without suggesting a clear match. The gothic mansion, the feared but wounded patriarch, the ghastly family, the scheming grifter who takes her chances… we’ve seen these things a thousand times, but they never lose their appeal. The key lies in the strength of the performances and the script, not to mention the cinematographer’s ability to create the kind of atmosphere in which a palatial mansion becomes a prison made of lies.
The title hints at a moral dimension to a story in which no-one manifests the slightest trace of morality. Can we blame all this bad behaviour on Serge? A household tyrant and philanderer, he has made life difficult for everyone around him, but that hardly explains the level of animus he inspires. We can only wonder what other sins he has on his account.
Serge’s misdeeds don’t explain Nathalie’s personal amorality, unless we assume she has been corrupted by the lure of his money – the proverbial root of all evil. As Hercule Poirot would remind us, it’s almost always money or sex that provide the motivation for crime. What Serge and Nathalie have in common is that they have both been heartless sexual adventurers, willing to manipulate others for their own advantage. Like all morality tales, there will come a reckoning.
The Origin of Evil
Directed by Sébastien Marnier
Written by Fanny Burdino & Sébastien Marnier
Starring: Laure Calamy, Doria Tillier, Dominique Blanc, Jacques Weber, Suzanne Clément, Céleste Brunnquell, Véronique Ruggia
France/Canada, MA 15+, 123 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 November, 2023