Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Origin of Evil

Today in "the way movies are booked in post-pandemic Boston is kind of screwed up", The Origin of Evil, a pretty darn entertaining French thriller that is getting a week of terrible showtimes at Boston Common - for the next three days, it will be playing at 11:45am and 5:30pm. It played roughly those times on Friday, at 10:45am and 5pm on Saturday, and at 5pm Sunday, leaving those of us who work during the week three showtimes we could get to.

That is, needless to say, not a whole lot of time to find out that it exists, or is playing, if one vaguely remembers it getting good buzz at festivals back in 2022. Maybe IFC Films has been advertising it somewhere - I believe they've got the same parent company as IFC, AMC Networks, so perhaps there's some synergy there; it's been a long time since I've watched anything on those channels. The theater in which it played, AMC Boston Common (yeah, we've got both AMCs going here) has not at any point had a poster up for it, nor has there been a trailer that I've seen. Which doesn't mean there hasn't been one - the previews that played before this movie were not ones I'd seen before other films in the theater, and since I haven't seen a lot along these lines recently, that just means I might have missed one. Still, I'm going to guess half of the things previewed here won't actually play that theater or any other local AMC.

The other bit that's kind of screwy is that it's playing this theater, and only this theater - for as much as Boston Common with its 19 screens that are mostly pretty dense, seating about three or so times as many people as other screens with the same square footage, has showtimes to throw to something unusual, you'd sort of expect this to go to Landmark Kendall Square pre-pandemic - heck, it might have snared a spot on their printed calendar so people would know about it ahead of time. I still think of it as a boutique house which would absolutely book the sexy French thriller - granted, this isn't necessarily that sexy, and "sexy French thriller" would obviously take a back seat to "eccentric old English ladies" - but it's not really that any more. They didn't book this, but they did get Expendables 4. Maybe they've picked up enough MIT students and other folks in the Kendall area who would rather see new mainstream releases rather than boutique-house material.

It means there's not really a home for movies like this in Boston right now, or at least not very many. Perhaps there will be a little more when the Coolidge opens its two new screens, but even they've been playing a pretty mainstream slate this summer. I worry a bit that maybe that's just the post-pandemic movie world, with screens to precious and audiences too hard to come by for anything less mainstream than a Wes Anderson move to get a planned release, and the rest are just lucky to get a couple showings a day with no warning, which don't do well, convincing the bookers that there's no audience.

I'm not sure how you get around that, and it's a bummer, because in an ideal world it could work the other way - folks who went to see A Haunting in Venice might get a trailer for something a little out of their comfort zone like The Origin of Evil, know it's going to be out in a few weeks, come even though they don't usually see French movies, and then be ready for the next French thing the theater programs. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the direction we're heading.

L'origine du mal (The Origin of Evil)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

A living room full of taxidermy is generally a good way to warn you that these rich people are more than garden-variety weird, and it's probably telling that writer/director Sébastien Marnier almost overwhelms the taxidermy with other eccentricities as the audience gets to know the Dumontet family in The Origin of Evil. It is, quite clearly, going to be a lot of movie, with a lot to sift through.

There's a little time getting there, as we first meet its protagonist (Laure Calamy) working a line at a sardine packing plant, being stood up by the girlfriend (Suzanne Clément) she was visiting in prison, and then finding she would be kicked out of her room, as her landlady's daughter is returning home. It has, finally, made her desperate enough to call Serge Dumontet (Jacques Weber), the man who fathered her out of wedlock. Serge has recently suffered a stroke, which has perhaps made him re-evaluate being a part of Stéphane's life; wife Louise (Dominique Blanc), daughter George (Doria Tillier), and Louise's longtime servant Agnès (Véronique Ruggia Saura), are, obviously, less pleased about this new addition to the family.

The filmmakers do a fun thing here where, really on, one of the characters jumps straight to guessing the sort of crazy twist that is usually reserved for late in the third act, the sort that otherwise would stop the film for explanatory flashbacks when revealed, well ahead of the audience. The way we engage with thrillers makes us want to rule it out - you can't just say what's really going on at this early point! - but it makes the next little while a little more interesting: Are we getting those bits that reveal this has been seeded throughout the film in real time, or is it all a misdirection for something else? It's a nifty strategy, because the bulk of the movie is not so much people plotting against each other to specific ends but watching Stéphane amplify the family's assumptions while blowing off her real life, and seeing how the rest of the family reacts to how she threatens their comfortable present and future existence.

That's fun, and in the meantime, the Dumontets just keep getting weirder and weirder, not bad considering that the living room full of taxidermy is kind of a red flag to start. I suspect there's some Succession vibes here - I've never watched the show, but Jacques Weber does come off as "Brian Cox but French" as Serge - creating a cast of highly-watchable but possibly terrible people. Dominique Blanc's Louise is eccentric enough to make one wonder if there's something dark under the loopiness, Véronique Ruggia Saura hits the right combination of servant-snobbishness and caginess as Agnès, and Doria Tiller makes George the sort of coolly capable manager who could either be ready to collapse or go in for the kill at any point. It's all in orbit around, Weber, who essays this particularly French sort of lion in winter perfectly - the sophisticated man who has risen in large part due to his good taste, his affairs smiled at, but with a level of nastiness underneath and a horror at his failing body that he's just capable of masking.

And then there's Laure Calamy; she and Marnier are able to score plenty of early sympathy by showing the weight on her shoulders and the delight and finding a family even beyond how her father is loaded, and maintains just enough of it to keep the audience mostly with her as Marnier allows this status to go to her head and Calamy makes her performance bigger and more manic, fully merging with the crazy around her and at times surpassing it. Her scenes with Suzanne Clément crackle, as the free woman's lies and growing alignment with the Dumontets cracks the other's head-down, calm-but-simmering manner.

It's a good enough juggling act to keep one from spending too much time on how there's not necessarily any endgame to be had that makes any kind of sense, to the point where some of the later dramatic scenes tend to work in spite of the audience wondering what the point of that was and looking at the other shoe Marnier has pointedly held high above the floor as if to drop it, wondering if maybe the two go together. Or, on the other hand, maybe it's one of those thrillers where things just get out of control (as I imagine many improvised crimes do), and haven't you been enjoying chaos all along?

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