There’s a reliance on settled tropes with which Sebastien Marnier unfolds his latest film, The Origin of Evil (Original Title: L’Origine du mal). The narrative beats are decisively borrowed. Marnier plays on the subsequently developed intuition of knowing where the plot is heading by making the driving motivation messier, confounding, and teeming with humanity. But this simultaneously becomes a stumbling block, where the screenplay loosens its grip. Stephane (Laure Calamy), who works at a fish processing plant, has attempted to reconnect with her father, whom she has never seen. She makes this decision at the cusp of relinquishing her place when her landlady’s daughter is moving back in.
She meets her father, Serge (Jacques Weber), at a restaurant owned by him. Overwhelmed with emotion at the news of her mother’s passing, he invites her to his swanky villa that juts into the sea. Here, Marnier springs a mostly familiar setup, replete with a housekeeper, Agnes (Veronique Ruggia), Serge’s wife, Louise (Dominique Blanc), their daughter, George (Doria Tillier), and grand-daughter, Jeanne (Celeste Brunnquel).
George is frostier and warier than her mother in welcoming a stranger like Stephane amidst them. Marnier, who has also written the film with Fanny Burdino, paints some characters deliciously while letting others fall off to the wayside. As Serge says with vexation, Louise is dressed in furs and spends more than a thousand euros per day. A distance developed between Louise and Serge, especially after their other son left the family.
Serge is convinced George is trying to take over the estate and properties, having assumed the reins of the company’s board already. George has utter bitterness towards her father, and not very long into the film, we find out the full range of Serge’s monstrousness. This is a man who believes he can buy people into loving and worshipping him.
Stephane keeps a cheery, people-pleasing façade on. Still, we quickly see a sharp flicker of her shrewdness and her astute way of adapting to an unpleasant situation when she confidently tells Serge and the family she had started the fish plant, crafting a story of her audacious confidence to impress. It does the task. Serge and his wife are charmed.
When Stephane meekly asks George what she does, she sets off a firebomb that exposes the fault lines within the family, bringing to the fore the deep rifts between Serge and George, as the father accuses the daughter of usurping his hard-earned assets. However, the film does not wholly embrace the wickedness nor takes the maliciousness evident in heaps to any delightful zaniness.
It is baffling because the film is strangely content with just teasing us with glimmers of the coldness within families. When Marnier does let it all rip, like in a standout scene where George erupts in fury and lunges at Serge to strangle him, the film pulsates with the animosity that is palpable among its characters.
There’s also the vicious, terrifying rage of Serge that bursts out most venomously, but large stretches of the film are insipid and colorless. Suzanne Clement, playing a crucial role as a prisoner who is involved with Stephane, is fierce and gets to channel immense physical aggression but is otherwise shunted. Her linkage to the narrative is of critical importance, but her character comes off as woefully underwritten, a shame for an actress of Clement’s caliber.
The script alternates between bitingly dark scenes that unravel a vitiated reach of a parent who feels entitled to the love of his children with the lure of money and uses intimidation to whip them into submission and meandering sections such as those including Clement’s character, who is obsessed with Stephane. The pace slackens too much for us to keep caring, but Marnier throws in occasional jabs of poignant, humane truth.
Blanc imbues Louise with a touching tinge of loneliness; she needs Stephane to stay around for her sake, for enduring an imaginable horror when George wouldn’t be around and her husband skulking at large in the house. The subtly expressed weight of these moments allows a more pronounced impact on the film’s twists and turns. Yet, these are too far and few in between, causing the film to frequently sink into slumps of dull writing that do not enhance the characterization of any of the abundantly skilled players in the tale.
One is led to wonder how and why the film loses relish so quickly. The setup is instantly enticing, but the film keeps the drama oddly muted, the glee and mischief half-absent. The actors invest, but the film keeps their best efforts at bay. There’s a directionless impulse that slowly seeps into the film, and it feels drained of humor that could have lifted several passages. Most of it is dry and stuffed with scenes that don’t rise to the sublimely deranged in the carapace of a template rich in it. I wish the film had more fun flirting with the oodles of wild potential it had at its disposal.