‘Is it you causing the fishy smell?’ asks ailing restaurateur Serge (Jacques Weber) of his newly rediscovered daughter Stéphane (Laure Calamy) in Sébastien Marnier‘s fantastically ripe thriller The Origin of Evil. It’s surprising Serge can smell anything amiss, given how suspicious and conniving practically everyone in the family turns out to be. We know from the start that Stéphane is not who she says she is, but this talented Ms. Ripley may have bitten off more than she can chew when she tries to worm her way into the rich and rancid Dumontet dynasty.

Stéphane is in fact Nathalie, an ex-con and very current con-woman who hopes to escape her job in an anchovy packing plant by assuming the identity of her incarcerated lover (Suzanne Clément) and ingratiating herself with Stéphane’s estranged family. She finds them at just the right time. The Dumontets are dysfunctional to say the last. Stepmother Louise (Dominique Blanc) is an alcoholic hoarder, George (Doria Tillier) is planning to obtain legal guardianship of Serge following his stroke, and their housekeeper Agnés (Marnier’s frequent collaborator Véronique Ruggia) is a bit light-fingered round the family silver. Easy pickings she thinks, especially when Serge responds far more positively than she ever expected. Yet, everyone has their own agenda, and the real Stéphane is still capable of being a loose cannon.

French cinema has its problems – a troublesome addiction to Roman Polanski for starters – but great roles for more mature actresses isn’t one of them. After a string of headline performances since her breakout turn in Call My Agent!, Laure Calamy gets one of her juiciest parts to date as the sultry, seductive, and scheming Nathalie. She has an easy charm that makes the audience want her to succeed, against their better judgement. It’s also hard not to have a sneaking admiration for someone who lies so quickly and easily, particularly when they’re being used against such awful people in a blunt show of ‘eat-the-rich’ nest invasion. Marnier, however, can’t help but have an Almodóvar-like affection for his other female characters, and takes pains to show the damage that Serge has inflicted on everyone who comes into there orbit. They can be rather bathetic, like Louise with her massive wall of VHS tapes, or bitter and Machiavellian like George. The latter proves to be the most formidable opponent to Nathalie’s schemes – game recognises game after all.

With such a set up and a talented cast relishing the campy and vampy, it’s sad to say that the The Origin of Evil doesn’t quite go far enough. The stage seems set for Hitchcockian intrigue – with Rebecca a particular comparison – and the frequent split-screens so beloved of Brian De Palma suggests a similar fondness for freewheeling, outrageous plotting. Yet it all turns out to be a bit safe. There are opportunities for it to be a little subversive, and to do something different with its class commentary. But just when you think a really wicked denouement is on the cards, it opts for the path more travelled. It doesn’t make The Origin of Evil an unsatisfying experience, it just feels like the potential for something delicious has been unfulfilled given the talent involved.

In selected cinemas from Fri 29 Mar 2024