Review: In ‘The Origin of Evil,’ secrets and lies (and taxidermy) on the Cte d’Azur

Several women in fancy black dress sit on an ornate sofa while another woman sits nearby with a wine glass.
A scene from the movie “The Origin of Evil.”
(Laurent Champoussin / IFC Films)
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If you traveled to Porquerolles, an island on the southernmost tip of the Cte d’Azur, a paradise of white beaches and so many trees that the French call the place a “floating forest,” and you were invited to lunch at a massive villa and, once inside, found yourself in a room crammed full of ceramics, stacks of unopened boxes and a bevy of mounted animals, would you stick around long enough to see what’s on the menu? It could be the remains of the flamingo off in the corner. Taxidermy isn’t known to whet the appetite.

This is the situation that Stéphane (the delightful Laure Calamy) finds herself navigating in the opening minutes of “The Origin of Evil,” a dark comic thriller from Sébastien Marnier, the French filmmaker who impressed with his 2018 eco-horror movie “School’s Out.” The title of his latest makes it sound like a horror flick too, something about ancient demons or Ouija boards or the early days of Bill Maher’s late-night talk show. Instead, it’s about an old man named Serge who’s trying to hold onto the family business because he doesn’t think his children are worthy of taking over. Think of him as Logan Roy — without the charm.

Serge (Jacques Weber) may not have a “f— off” catchphrase, but he does possess something beyond Logan’s grasp. He is the only male character in “The Origin of Evil.” His son, the child he wanted to succeed him, has run off or died or ... something. His oldest daughter, George (Doria Tillier), seems too headstrong for him and the youngest, Jeanne (Céleste Brunnquell), can’t wait to get away. Family, for her, is the “worst thing in the world,” like a “poison seeping through your veins.” (I don’t think she likes the stuffed flamingo, either.)

Enter Stéphane, the daughter that Serge never knew until now. The old man, we are told, was “popular with the women” — “some,” sniffs George, “less attractive than others.” The wide-eyed Stéphane comes to the island wanting nothing other than, she says, to meet her father, maybe sift through some abandonment issues and pick up a souvenir for the boat ride home. “I imagine it wasn’t easy,” George tells her when the day is over. “But please don’t come back.” (And who says French hospitality is dead?)

A distinguished elder man sits at a dining-room table.
Jacques Weber in the movie “The Origin of Evil.”
(IFC Films)

Thing is, Serge doesn’t want Stéphane to leave. Recovering from a stroke, he is attracted to her warmth, her compassion and the way she cuts his steak at the dinner table. Stéphane tells Serge she owns and runs a fish-packing company. In reality, she works the assembly line, sending anchovies off in their little tin coffins. Did she lie out of embarrassment? Or does this woman have bigger fish to fry?

It spoils nothing to say that there are plenty of secrets in “The Origin of Evil.” Lies, too, as well as slander, cruelty and a hidden tunnel that could only help boost the resale value of Serge’s villa if he should, you know, pass away suddenly. The second-hour intrigue is sharp enough to hold your interest and the final bit of untwisting registers as near-perfect. Criterion Channel subscribers may find echoes of Claude Chabrol in Marnier’s ice-water approach — faint, but present.

Marnier could have taken another pass at the film’s secondary characters (the upcoming thriller “Saltburn” has the same problem with its dysfunctional clan), and whatever notions he’s trying to put across about the patriarchy don’t quite land. But he has a star in the sparkling Calamy, whom you may know from the French showbiz comedy “Call My Agent!”, which became an improbable Netflix hit during the pandemic, probably earning her, oh, a couple dozen euros in residuals.

A late-blooming career has earned Calamy comparisons to Olivia Colman, which is kind of likening a filmmaker to Chabrol. But she’s terrific, a revelation if you only know her from “Call My Agent!” After watching her here, I hope her agent‘s phone is ringing off the hook.

'The Origin of Evil'

In French, with English subtitles

Rating: R, for language, nudity, some sexual content and violence

Running time: Two hours, three minutes

Playing: In limited release