It’s striking that the Cahiers du cinéma critics who turned to directing made such different films and had such different careers. The six who became the central group of the so-call French New Wave in the late 1950s are now all gone. Truffaut was the most popular with audiences but tragically cut short in his prime, Godard wowed the critics and then the film theorists. Rivette was the least prolific, but his films were often the longest. Rohmer arguably lasted longest in the public eye, gradually refining his tales of love and relationships and holding on to his audience. But what of Chabrol (1930-2010)? He didn’t make as many ‘films’ as Godard, but he probably made more features. He had moments when he made popular genre films and also advertisements, but mainly he stuck to his own particular take on the Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ which often morphed into a form of crime melodrama.

Chabrol relaxing on set alongside Nathalie Bay

In his last few years he made a loose trilogy of ‘family melodrama thrillers’ which skewered the hypocrisies of his favourite target, the wealthy French provincial bourgeoisie. After La cérémonie (1995) and Merci pour le chocolat (2000), La fleur du mal moves attention to Aquitaine and more precisely the Gironde. Anne Charpin (Nathalie Baye) is married to Gérard Vasseur (Bernard Le Coq). They had both been widowed when they married. Anne has a daughter Micheline (Mélanie Doutey) and Gérard has a son François (Benoît Magimel) who has just returned from three years in the US. The final family member is Anne’s Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon). The Charpin family has a history of tragedy and secrets and on this day, as Anne is set to go campaigning to retain her seat on the local council, her running mate brings a disturbing poison pen letter that is circulating. It raises the ‘dirty secrets’ in the family and appears to be attempting to discredit her.

Anne and her running mate (played by Thomas Chabrol). What is Gérard thinking?

The story is original and written by Caroline Eliacheff and Louise L. Lambrichs. Eliacheff was also involved in scripting the other two films in the loose trilogy. La cérémonie was adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel and Chabrol had previously adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Le cri du hibou (1987).There is a theme of women writing crime thrillers here and you have to worry about the father and son in the story. In fact there are possibly four stories here. What Gérard is up to isn’t clear – he is concerned mainly with his pharmacy business which is expanding, Anne is wrapped up with her campaign. François and Micheline are clearly attracted to each other. They have an ‘affinity relationship’. I think this means that any sexual relationship is incestuous in Catholic canonical law but I’m no expert on such matters. It’s an odd situation since Anne and Gérard married after their original spouses had been killed in the same car crash. Poor Line carries the burden of more secrets in the Charpin family history. I don’t want to spoil the mystery of how the four stories come together but the outcome is virtually spelt out in the opening credits sequence.

‘Tante Line’ gets on well with François and Micheline

As might be expected, the film is beautifully directed and flows effortlessly. There are subtle clues to the characters’ feelings/attitudes. The performances are very good and the standout is arguably Suzanne Flon who was in her mid-80s when the film was released but she has the vitality of someone much younger. I note that she was an actor from working-class background who began in uncredited roles during the Occupation of 1940-44 and that is ironic in terms of the family secrets in this film in which she has history as the middle-class daughter of a Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite. Overall, I don’t think the film has the same power as La cérémonie or Merci pour le chocolat and perhaps it could take a little more melodrama. But as an ‘entertainment’ with a definite ‘bite’ it is certainly very watchable. When I first realised the importance of the French New Wave in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was Truffaut and Chabrol as the most accessible filmmakers who caught my attention. I saw a fair amount of Chabrol’s earlier output and then tended to neglect him a little. When I returned to work with some of his later films I realised how much I’d missed. This film has at least one unmistakeable Chabrol trope – the difficulty of moving a dead body. Like Truffaut, Chabrol certainly learned something from Hitchcock.

Gérard attends events during Anne’s campaigns but his attention does wander . . .

MUBI currently streams three Chabrol films and La cérémonie arrives as a fourth in a couple of days. I think his films are always worth checking out and La cérémonie is one of his best. La fleur du mal is also available on other streamers/downloaders such as Apple.