The Origin of Evil: nothing is as it seems

Sébastien Marnier’s delectable comic thriller is expertly calibrated for tingling camp pleasure, but its fine vein of pathos drives the film home.

6 September 2022

By Caspar Salmon

The Origin of Evil (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Venice International Film Festival

Sometimes bringing to mind a queer(er) Rebecca made by Claude Chabrol had he lived to see The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills (2010–), Sébastien Marnier’s The Origins of Evil is, by the time of its delicious final reel, a movie all of its own. This high-flown tale of family, double-crossing, toxic patriarchy and murder gives a plum role to Laure Calamy as Stéphane, a working-class factory worker who sets out to finally meet Serge, her rich, previously unacknowledged father in the forbidding house he inhabits with his equally forbidding wife, daughter, granddaughter and maid. What does Stéphane seek from her father? Revenge? Money? Love? What does this ailing tyrant want from her? How will the seething womenfolk in the paternal household deal with this cuckoo in their midst?

So many aspects of the film are expertly calibrated for tingling camp pleasure, from the arch performances (Dominique Blanc, as Serge’s wife Louise, is serving Phantom Thread to the power of Almodóvar) to the set decoration (stuffed animals galore, an entire wall of VHS tapes) right through to the very camerawork (witty split-screens; a crane shot used for nothing more than to film three people on a sofa). The fact that Stéphane’s job is in an anchovy-packing factory, the almost total lack of men, and two deeply enjoyable murder scenes are merely the icing on the cake.

Nothing is quite as it seems in The Origin of Evil; traditional elements of storytelling seem at first to be withheld, only for Marnier to clunk the audience on the head by revealing them later on. This makes for an unsettling tone at the movie’s outset, which can take some time to adjust to: are we in a social-realist comedy? Is this a black-hearted thriller? Who is this protagonist about whom we know so little, other than that she is played by the winsome Calamy, trying her best in this hostile environment? Stéphane’s identity and what is motivating her gradually turn this part into Calamy’s best role, delivering dark comedy and sadness in equal measure; the actor steadily dials up the fervour to eleven over the film’s duration.

If The Origin of Evil were only lurid camp it would pall fairly quickly, but Marnier is careful to weave a fine vein of pathos through this narrative. The absence of Serge’s beloved son, a homosexual man, hangs over proceedings; so too does Stéphane’s need for love and belonging, which leads her to act so rashly. Serge’s terrible violence and megalomania, initially only hinted at, are ultimately brutal, more than counterbalancing the film’s tart comedy. The Origin of Evil’s wicked ways hit home with all the more jouissance for being deceptively anchored in the real.

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