TIFF 2022 | The Origin of Evil (Sébastien Marnier, France/Canada) — Contemporary World Cinema

By Clara Miranda Scherffig

In one of the first sequences of The Origin of Evil, rows of anchovies are shown being packaged in plastic on an assembly line. Later on, the image of dead fish crammed in an oily box will cease to embody the family intrigue at the centre of the plot and become, rather sinisterly, a stand-in for viewers caught watching an accidental pastiche. The third feature by Sébastien Marnier—who has a talent for claustrophobic and suspense-charged stories—falls under its own penchant for deception, which is not necessarily a flaw per se, and occasionally a cause for comic relief.

Soon to be evicted, frustrated by her job and her bad-tempered girlfriend who is locked up in jail, factory worker Stéphane (Laure Calamy) connects with her aging father Serge (Jacques Weber), whom she has never met. At his sumptuous villa on the Côte d’Azur island of Porquerolles, Stéphane is greeted with hostility by the new family, an all-female cohort who fears a new pretender to the inheritance. The nasty quartet includes Serge’s wife, a compulsive shopper who spent the early years of their marriage recording VHS 24/7 (Dominique Blanc); his ruthless, business-driven daughter (Doria Tillier); a Trunchbull-y housekeeper (Véronique Ruggia); and a teenage niece (Céleste Brunnquell) whose only role seems to be to deliver the film’s message: “One’s family is the worst thing in the world. Like poison seeping through your veins.”

But again, The Origin of Evil is all about deceiving: someone is lying, and its main topics are not really there to be unpacked. Display of power and toxic masculinity, the wonders of performance and identity theft are no less than ploys serving a bigger purpose: the pleasure for gripping storytelling. And yet while the narrative engine is tight and sound, the aesthetic framework misleads, to often distracting effect. Beginning as a family drama, the film develops into a melodrama and ends as a psychological thriller, each act marked by transformations in the Moroder-inspired score by Pierre Lapointe. 

At its best, The Origin of Evil is reminiscent of Claude Chabrol’s atmospheres, someplace between the icy setting of Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and the “queer spice” of La Cérémonie (1995). At its worst, the film offers unintended parodies (not least a lesbian variation on Eastern Promises’ [2007] Turkish bath fight scene) and frames cluttered by physical and cinematic props—mounted taxidermy animals, carnivorous plants, split screens, different aspect ratios—devoid of consistent design. Genre film is indeed paid tribute to, but in a disorganized, undecided way. Beginning with the title, expectations for a grandly coherent scheme are disappointed, revealing an inattention or excess of ambition only second to the protagonist’s fatal, final mistake. A chance for a good laugh — or maybe not!

clara@cinema-scope.com Miranda Clara