Thrillers of '80s, '90s inspire twisty French film 'The Origin of Evil'

A mysterious woman, down on her luck and working a miserable job at a tinned fish factory, makes contact with the extremely wealthy father she's never met - and his suspicious heirs - in the French thriller "The Origin of Evil."

Though the title may conjure up associations with jump scares, hauntings and demonic possessions, this film, now playing in 200 theaters in North America, draws its inspirations not from horrors but from the psychological, erotic thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s.

The mystery woman, Stéphane, is played by Laure Calamy, an actor familiar to anyone who devoured the French comedy series "Call My Agent!" The New York Times said the film was "' Succession' meets Brian De Palma. "

Like many French filmmakers before him, Sébastien Marnier fell in love with cinema through Hollywood movies. Thrillers like "Basic Instinct," "Fatal Attraction" and "Single White Female" made a big impact on him as a teenager. They were exciting, usually featured strong and dangerous women at the heart of them and, of course, they were sexy, which at 14 or 15 was a "really big deal," he laughed in a recent interview.

"American cinema is really the foundation of my cinephilia," Marnier said through a translator. "What I like to look for is finding that feeling that American film gave me when I was a teenager, but making a truly French film with those feelings. So how do I take the inspiration that I felt as a teenager from those emotions to make a truly French film that is taking place on the French territory?"

With "The Origin of Evil" he wanted to pay homage to those films and put them within a distinctly French context. Influences range from Claude Chabrol to "Parasite." A playful mixture of genres, it's scary at times, but also funny, offbeat and, yes, sexy, as Stéphane, who is in a romantic relationship with a volatile imprisoned woman, navigates the personalities in her father Serge's (Jacques Weber) orbit: His spendy wife, Louise (Dominique Blanc), his daughter George (Doria Tillier) who is angling to push him out of the business, a jaded granddaughter (Céleste Brunnquell) and their unfriendly maid (Véronique Ruggia).

Though the origin of this story comes from a very personal place - Marnier's mother, who made contact with her father later in life - he hopes it has broader commentary on issues affecting modern France.

"I think 'The Origin of Evil' talks about the end of a certain French society, the end of a powerful patriarchy, the end of a superrich right wing dominant class, especially in the Riviera, a very rich class that was anti-Semitic and extremely powerful," said Marnier. "And it's in this confrontation of two worlds that we find a tension that France, is really experiencing at the moment. There's something very French, I think, in the way the film captures the class struggle."

It's also a film where no one is quite what they seem, and it keeps you guessing and second guessing until the very end. Instrumental in this was the casting of Calamy.

"She has something that's quite rare in French cinema, which is that she's very beautiful and sexy, but on the other hand, she's also banal in the good sense of the word. She's really the woman next door," Marnier said. "And because of things like 'Call My Agent!' we like her. We have an empathy for her.

"If I had cast Isabelle Huppert, we would know right away that she was going to kill everybody," he added.

Stéphane, it should be said, does not "kill everybody," but she has her dark secrets too.

Of that De Palma comparison, Marnier deflects. It is, he said, much too much. "I don't deserve that," he said. "He's one of my favorite filmmakers."

He's mostly just excited that after a few films, he's finally got one that's playing in American cinemas too.

"It's really moving and beautiful," he said. "My other films were released on platforms in the U.S., but to be released theatrically is a great gift."

Director Sebastien Mariner's latest film is "The Origin of Evil." Associated Press, 2018
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