The Origin of Evil

This twisty French thriller is riveting from start to finish — and boasts 'Call My Agent!' star Laure Calamy's latest exceptional performance.
Sarah Ward
October 19, 2023

Overview

Laure Calamy doesn't star in everything that's hitting screens big and small from France right now, but from Call My Agent! and Only the Animals to Full Time and The Origin of Evil, audiences can be forgiven for feeling otherwise. Calamy isn't new to acting, either, with a resume dating back to 2001; however, her in-demand status at present keeps showering viewers with stellar performances. Indeed, The Origin of Evil is a magnificent Calamy masterclass. She's playing a part while playing a part, and she makes both look effortless. The Antoinette in the Cévennes César Best Actress-winner is also a picture of unnerving determination and yearning, and resourcefulness and anxiety, too, as a seafood-factory worker usually tinning anchovies, then packing herself into a mix of Knives Out, Succession, The Talented Mr Ripley and Triangle of Sadness.

Unleashing in-fighting upon a wealthy family residing on Côte d'Azur island Porquerolles, this instantly twisty and gripping thriller from Faultless and School's Out writer/director Sébastien Marnier (who collaborates on the screenplay with Amore mio scribe Fanny Burdino) takes a setting that'd do The White Lotus proud as well, then wreaks havoc. On the agenda in such lavish and scenic surroundings, which come filled with an unsettling menagerie of taxidermied animals: witnessing savage squabbling over who'll inherit a business empire, bathing in the kind of bitterness that only the bonds of blood among the affluent and entitled can bring, more than one person wishing that patriarch Serge Dumontet (Jacques Weber, The World of Yesterday) would shuffle off this mortal coil and, just as crucially, not everything being what it seems.

First, The Origin of Evil sees the mundanity of Stéphane's (Calamy) life on the mainland, as she works the tinning assembly line, is stood up during a visit to her incarcerated girlfriend (Suzanne Clément, STAT) and gets kicked out when her landlady decides to reconcile with her estranged daughter. It's after the latter news that she picks up the phone, makes a call and locks in a date for her own reunion. Soon, Stéphane and Serge are getting acquainted — but when the restaurateur takes his long-lost daughter from a fling decades ago back home to his palatial abode, the welcome is hardly warm. His shopaholic wife Louise (Dominique Blanc, Syndrome E) is largely obliging enough, but his daughter George (Doria Tillier, Smoking Causes Coughing) couldn't be icier, her daughter Jeanne (Céleste Brunnquell, Fifi) can't understand why anyone would want in on a clan she can't wait to get out of and light-fingered maid Agnès (Véronique Ruggia, Loving Memories) is also far from friendly.

Stéphane isn't the only reason that affection among the Dumontets is as dead as the stuffed critters filling their airy, stately but jam-packed abode. His health may be ailing, but Serge still has a bite regarding work, ruling the roost and being threatened as the head of the family. George says that she's been running the company since her father's stroke, and is taking him to court to gain full control — which he'll do anything to stop. Accordingly, the joy that Serge splashes around over Stéphane's sudden appearance and the misgivings that are directed her way by George are both saddled with ample history. Whether she's claiming to own the fish factory, advising that all she wants is to get to know the dad that she's grown up without, or ignoring George's cold demand that she go away and never come back, Stéphane's time with this battling brood also has its own knotty backstory.

With his School's Out cinematographer Romain Carcanade, Marnier makes The Origin of Evil a visually exacting and foreboding film, even as its vibe is laced with black comedy. Nudging viewers to spot firearms and knives isn't by accident. Ramping up the tension by having the audience primed for a body count isn't as well. Playfully clever use of split screens when everyone in front of the lens is in the same room helps reinforce the Dumontets' divisions, with and without Stéphane — and stresses her outsider status among them, alongside a heavy everyone's-a-future-suspect air. In its imagery, The Origin of Evil is as busy as the central villa that Louise has stacked with everything that she can possibly collect (one notable instance: a wall of VHS tapes of recorded TV shows). The switch of hues from grim to bright whenever Porquerolles beckons is telling, too. Watching along is like playing detective, then, scouring the sights, scenes and details for tell-tale tidbits.

It might sport a title that could grace an entry in the Evil Dead, The Conjuring or IT franchises (most scary-movie sagas, really), but The Origin of Evil isn't a horror movie — traditionally, at least. As told via savvily suspenseful scripting, where constantly waiting for new revelations doesn't mean being ready for everything that spills, it's scathing about the ghastliness of money, privilege and expectation, and also misogyny.  Snaky doesn't only sum up the plot, though. Where allegiances and sympathies land at any given moment is equally as zigzagging. And, as the story keeps spinning, Calamy's bobbing and weaving efforts as Stéphane are nothing short of phenomenal. Marnier and Carcanade regularly catch reactions from the newcomer in the Dumontets' midst that her hosts cannot see, each one adding new layers to this star performance.

As riveting as she proves at every moment, Calamy also has excellent company, including the rest of the female-heavy cast. Blanc, Tillier, Brunnquell and Ruggia's characters mightn't receive as much time on-screen to demonstrate as much depth, but the quartet still ensures that they each make a sharp impression. Blanc is a barbed yet smiling gem, in particular. Together, around Weber segueing from affable to monstrous, the four women unpack the many imperfections of a life that glitters only on the surface — aka the flaws in the gleaming prize that Stéphane is so eagerly chasing. Again, however, Calamy is The Origin of Evil's jewel. If France's film and TV output wants to keep pushing her to the fore again and again, its movies and television shows will only be better for it.

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