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The French actress Laure Calamy is largely known to U.S. viewers for her work in the French series “Call My Agent,” which developed a strong following here via Netflix. The 48-year-old is fortunate not to be American, given the dearth of respect and meaningful roles bestowed on female performers her age in Hollywood. Her appeal here nevertheless speaks to a real problem in stateside casting practices. In the meantime, that appeal means the U.S. release of her work on the Continent, showing a nice range. She’s great fun in the bouncy rom-com “My Donkey, My Lover, & I” and in “The Origin of Evil,” a gnarly, knotty thriller co-written (with Fanny Burdino) and directed by Sébastien Marnier, Calamy gives a dramatic performance of unsettling depth.
Her role is of a down-at-heels ex-convict who works at an anchovy-packing plant, yech. The environment and the largely lost souls who work in it are conveyed in a widescreen frame that’s almost entirely grayscale. She’s being kicked out of her rented room by a landlady who’s reuniting with her estranged daughter. Her imprisoned girlfriend refuses a visit. One nervous night, she calls a man who lives in Porquerolles, an island off the Cote d’Azur. This rich man had a daughter out of wedlock many years ago. And so Calamy’s character introduces herself as Stéphane, the long-lost child, and secures an invite to visit the old man.
Once off the ferry and in the villa belonging to wealthy restaurateur Serge (white-haired, bearlike Jacques Weber), the movie’s color palette changes as the matriarch of the house, Louise (Dominique Blanc, giving off strong Bette Davis/Baby Jane vibes) coordinates her nouveau-riche tacky outfits to match the Douanier-Rousseau hues of the furniture. Serge and Louise’s oldest daughter, George (Doria Tillier), is a more low-key dresser and an impeccably cold customer. Sensing, not quite without reason, that Stéphane is sniffing around for an inheritance at least, she instructs Stéphane to leave the island and not return.
But Stéphane has a plan, one that starts with impressing Serge. She tells the family she founded and runs that anchovy-packing plant and lies so quickly and effortlessly that the viewer’s jaw almost drops. She’s framed as a kind of rooting interest here, so vapid, sniping, and nasty are the other members of Serge’s clan. But as the specifics of her scheme become evident—and they are tied in explicitly to her relationship with that prison inmate—Calamy’s character becomes less ingratiating.
This is one of those thrillers in which almost nobody is who they seem to be. And those who are, are definitively unhinged. In Stéphane, Serge sees an exit ramp to an onerous situation—his family, led by George, who claims to have “saved” his business, is seeking a guardianship that the aging Serge is loath to accept, and he enlists Stéphane to testify on his behalf at a hearing. Again, we sympathize with the poor old guy at first. But soon, we’re asking whether Serge is in fact a kindly patriarch besieged by vultures or himself a monster.
In this film, lying is hard to stop once you’ve started. So is, as it turns out, killing. The web spun by “The Origin of Evil” arguably features one twist too many, but the viewer is in for more than a pound by the time it happens. Largely thanks to Calamy’s rock-solid performance.
Now playing in select theaters and available on demand.
Laure Calamy as Stéphane
Doria Tillier as George
Dominique Blanc as Louise
Jacques Weber as Serge
Suzanne Clément as La taularde
Véronique Ruggia Saura as Agnès
Céleste Brunnquell as Jeanne
Naidra Ayadi as Leila
Clotilde Mollet as La logeuse