The Great Wall
Unlike any American blockbuster you've seen, a conservative movie with action set pieces that are actually inventive and thrilling enough to be worthwhile.
A country house and a corpse. Yes. We are comfortable already. It is a big house, with a sweeping staircase, and doorways through which we glimpse life continuing just as if the owner were not dead upstairs. That must be the cook setting the table. But wait. The camera, having climbed the stairs and regarded the dead body, slides on down the corridor and looks through another door, where a young woman sits on the floor, distraught. We have come up these stairs just a few seconds too late to be eyewitnesses to murder.
Claude Chabrol has been climbing these stairs all of his life, and discovering the secrets of the French bourgeois. Many of his murderers have the easy manners of good old families. Before we go back downstairs and join the story of "The Flower of Evil," which is his 50th film, we should pause for a moment to honor this milestone. Chabrol was one of the founders of the French New Wave, so early he did not know it was the New Wave and he was founding it. As a character says in "Citizen Kane," he was there before the beginning and now here he is, after the end. "He began directing in 1958," Stanley Kauffmann writes in the New Republic, "and has never committed an ill-made film, has rarely made a dull one, and has occasionally created a gem."
I shared an enormous sea bass once with Chabrol in a New York Chinese restaurant, and on another night we did some drinking and talked about his latest film. That was in 1972, at the New York Film Festival. Five years earlier Andrew Sarris had already been able to write about Chabrol in the past tense: "He quickly became one of the forgotten figures of the nouvelle vague." Now it is 2003 and Chabrol still has his hand in. So does Sarris. "With respect to Mr. Chabrol's 'The Flower of Evil,' he writes tactfully in the New York Observer, "I would prefer to think of it as a masterly work of the artist's late period rather than as the tired product of his old age."
And so we beat on, boats against the current. I feel such an affection for Chabrol and his work that I probably can't see "The Flower of Evil" as it would be experienced by a first-time viewer. Would that newcomer note the elegance, the confidence, the sheer joy in the way he treasures the banalities of bourgeois life on his way to the bloodshed? And would they understand the truly savage quality that lurks just under the surface-the contempt he feels for these characters who move in such style between their jobs and homes, their political campaigns and love affairs? Here is a movie in which the one romance which nearly everyone approves of is between a brother and a sister.