Self-destructive characters who grift and deceive are ever the province of French filmmakers, from Claude Chabrol to “Tell No One” director Guillaume Canet. In Sébastien Marnier’s sinister and sly domestic thriller “The Origin of Evil,” Laure Calamy plays a woman whose lies can’t stop falling out of her mouth. Calamy is one of the MVPs of the French show business satire “Call My Agent!,” in which she plays a flustered assistant at a fictional talent agency run by ridiculous people. In “The Origin of Evil,” Calamy gives an unsettling performance as Stéphane, a grifter crawling out of a busted relationship and a toxic job at a cannery and into the life of a wealthy man, Serge, played by Jacques Weber. She contacts him out of the blue and insists she’s his long-lost daughter, and the two form a parasitic relationship that recalls the uneasy power dynamics of a movie like “The Favourite” (there is wince-inducing leg-massaging in this film, too).
But “The Origin of Evil” is more equal parts “Triangle of Sadness” and Patricia Highsmith in how it uses a grifter tale to examine class conflicts, albeit with a rather pat view of the aristocracy. Stéphane is an ex-convict who hates her life and is running out of money, while her supposed father Serge is a moneyed man who lives on an island off the Cote d’Azur, desperate to save his business and surrounded by awful, scheming women. That includes his chainsmoking, wine-slurping newest wife Louise (Dominique Blanc) and his oldest daughter George (Doria Tillier), both of whom are suspect of Stéphane’s aims and sudden arrival. There’s also a maid and a granddaughter who look at her coldly. As a campy-skewing thriller about the toxic dregs of the patriarchy, “The Origin of Evil” is derivative of other, better movies, but it unpacks a damaged woman’s emotional baggage and how she inflicts it on others with sophistication.
Back on the mainland, Stéphane’s relationship with her girlfriend (Suzanne Clément) is unraveling, and her job at an anchovy-packing factory is a dead end. So why not inveigle yourself into the midst of a man with a wine cellar and an island mansion? Calamy’s Noémie in “Call My Agent!” is a generally scheming woman who tries not too hard to push herself up the ranks of the agency business, but with eyes that absorb all its mischief. In “The Origin of Evil,” she’s coldly determined and grimly determined to her scheme on one end, but totally falling apart underneath it. It’s a fascinating and manipulative performance that showcases her gifts for layered drama beyond the slapstick and tart humor of “Call My Agent!” One of Stéphane’s earliest lies is that she actually started the cannery she works at — hardly the case, as she’s mostly a miserable assembly line laborer.
Cinematographer Romain Carcanade shoots “The Origin of Evil” in a lonely-making widescreen, Stéphane estranged from the beautiful things and supposedly happier people surrounding her, a world she sees a way into to escape her own dismal plot. Serge strikes a deal with her that can benefit both of them, but it only turns more sinister. Marnier has an almost Almodóvarian level of affection for the women in his film, particularly the makeup-slathered Louise, who turns the notch up to an 11 with campy bitchiness. He’s similarly obsessed with baroque set design, from the taxidermy on the walls of Serge’s estate to the funereal bric-a-brac adorning his home. The movie takes a mostly armchair attitude toward class critique, marveling at old-world wealthiness without interrogating its sickened roots beyond what’s required for an almost B-movie kind of satiric thriller (zealous split-screens and all). But no matter, as “The Origin of Evil” is ultimately Calamy’s show as a calculating and desperate woman seeking love and acceptance in all the wrong places.
“The Origin of Evil” is now playing in theaters from IFC Films.