Credit: IFC Films
by Sarah Williams Featured Film Genre Views

The Origin of Evil — Sébastien Marnier

September 21, 2023

Sebastien Marnier’s latest breezy, twisty thriller The Origin of Evil may lack any deeper interrogation in its Agatha Christie-reinvention of deception, but its strong ensemble cast makes the endeavor worthwhile, if not substantial, viewing. Stéphane (Laure Calamy), a worker at a fish cannery, rediscovers the family who gave her up at birth, reaching out to her father Serge (Jacques Weber), vague as to whether she is seeking connection or waiting for his grave to be dug. Though the women around him try to hide it, Serge is in poor health, and though nothing is as it seems, it’s the perfect setup for Victorian melodrama. Wary of Stéphane’s arrival, his wife Louise (Dominique Blanc) and daughter George (Doria Tiller) are prone to quips, long drags from cigarettes, and and a view of life that is mostly through a camera lens — more playing pieces in a bored game of middlebrow intrigue. Serge’s home is one fit for a Bond villain — an impersonal setting that seems more fit to be ogled for its production design aesthetics than its enhancement of dull-bladed gameplay — in stark contrast with his long-lost daughter’s shared apartment. There are family fights and lines drawn by class and generation, but in the end, formula and structure win every argument.

If anything, the roll of the dice in Clue more closely recalls François Ozon’s campy murder mystery 8 Women than it does 2022’s popular Glass Onion. Here, though the background of Stephane’s class and sexuality inform her character, Marnier is similarly more concerned with the icons of genre than he is the messaging of his familial power struggle. The family in The Origin of Evil is largely made up of caricatures: the ever-watchful maid, the restless teenager, the dubious executor. These are individual women less primed for social commentary, and more cast to fulfill genre tropes. Though often frothy, Marnier isn’t unaware of those present tropes, frequently casting a wink toward a secret passageway or rack of sharpened knives. The whodunnit-style caper is often even presented in split screen, The Talented Ms. Ripley by way of de Palma, a scrolling gallery of suspects in a family game night of deception. Calamy is as delightful as usual, her everywoman character brightened by her customary rom-com-forged optimism (though not quite the delight of a summer crowd pleaser like My Donkey, My Lover & I). The dynamic between Stéphane and her father is particularly strong, given their situation as mysteries to each other and her feeling the need to lie to increase her social standing. Does she claim that she owns the cannery simply to be perceived as closer in class status, or is the dynamic of a disapproving father she never had already trickling into her considerations?

The broader class dynamic, however, is somewhat light on nuance. In the vein of popular recent releases like Parasite, the dichotomy between the bourgeois family and factory worker, with Stéphane representing the proletariat, is limited to two polarized ends only maneuverable via the absorption of the family unit. The populist sentiment in this recent wave of class-metaphor genre films frames every conflict as a simple good versus evil; the wealthy are cartoonishly evil and the working class, even when conniving, are good at heart. In what is often functionally airplane fodder, the disparity between the characters in itself is not enough conflict, and there must always be a stark villain in the equation. The Origin of Evil does muddy its waters a bit, with the addition of Stéphane’s girlfriend (Suzanne Clement), who’s currently serving a five-year prison sentence. The relationship between the two women serves to counteract the façade of a perfect liar driven only by necessity, and the film’s queerness is a pleasant surprise even if it isn’t textually central. But where the film’s greatest benefit comes from its particular context: French commercial cinema tends toward the most trying forms of comedy — see, for example, the popularity of the insufferable Astérix & Obélix franchise — so the self-aware genre homage of The Origin of Evil is much welcome, even if it doesn’t break any new ground.

DIRECTOR: Sébastien Marnier;  CAST: Laura Calamy, Doria Tillier, Dominique Blanc, Suzanne Clément;  DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films;  IN THEATERS: September 22;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 3 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.