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At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center Oct. 29

Most of Claude Chabrol’s feature films—The Flower of Evil is his 50th—involve the poisonous relationships of the French bourgeoisie, and Hitchcock remains a major influence. So it’s no surprise when the director’s latest tale opens with a Hitchcockian traveling shot that moves up the stairs of a Bordeaux mansion, explores a series of well-appointed rooms, and finally settles on a corpse. This is just the first of Chabrol’s feints. As is gradually revealed, the movie does not turn on the two members of the Chapin-Vasseur family who are initially introduced, is not overly concerned about the behavior most likely to rankle moralistic sensibilities, and is not a murder mystery. All of the director’s films are to some degree social comedies, but this one is particularly uninterested in suspense: The song that plays during the opening sequence, “Un Souvenir,” is about memory, not homicide.

The bulk of what follows is a flashback. Young lawyer François (Benoît Magimel) returns to his birthplace after three years in Chicago and is met at the airport by his father, Gérard (Bernard Le Coq), who runs a large pharmacy in the small town. François and Gérard seem to get along well enough, and the relationships between the men and the family’s three women—François’ stepmother, Anne (Nathalie Baye); her lovely daughter, Michèle (Mélanie Doutey); and Anne’s gracious Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon)—appear normal enough. But that impression is quickly dispelled when François and Michèle, who are both stepsiblings and first cousins, begin kissing with something more than filial affection.

This potentially controversial attraction is what led François to flee to the United States, and it could be the family secret that results in murder. The Chapin-Vasseurs, however, have closets stuffed with skeletons. Some of which are about to be dragged into the sunlight—now that Anne is in the midst of a campaign to become mayor. An anonymous detractor has just produced a pamphlet that details some of the family’s more colorful history, including the violent deaths of Anne and Gérard’s previous spouses, Anne’s parents, and Line’s father. The last, by the way, was a notorious Nazi collaborator. (Chabrol associates him with real-life collaborator Maurice Papon, who wasn’t brought to justice until 1999, and then served only three years in prison.)

Anne is outraged by the flier, but Gérard—who would be happy to watch his wife lose the election—is less bothered. “Every word is true,” he notes, not long before Anne and her assistant, Matthieu (Thomas Chabrol), go canvassing in a working-class housing project, the contents of the pamphlet hanging amusingly over their conversations with potential voters. Meanwhile, François and Michèle head to Line’s beach house for an intimate weekend, and Gérard retreats to his lab, where he frequently meets attractive female patients for private consultations. One of the Chapin-Vasseurs will soon be dead, but don’t think of it as a tragedy. It’s more like a family tradition.

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Initially, the film’s rather bland male characters seem to be driving events: François (temporarily) escapes the family, Gérard runs a business, and Matthieu plots Anne’s campaign. Yet Anne triumphs over Gérard’s disdain for her political career, Michèle takes the lead in her relationship with François, and Line is more forceful—and central—than her gentle, self-effacing manner suggests. She’s also the custodian of the family’s most wrenching mysteries and the one who spells out the movie’s theme, ending a game of Scrabble with the word “conceal.”

“Aren’t you bothered that things keep repeating themselves?” François asks Michèle, but the film’s cycle of history (or genealogy) doesn’t have a devastating impact. This is a quiet film whose modest but utterly satisfying pleasures come from careful observation, wry detachment, and assured performances (notably Flon’s). Despite a title that promises the blossoming of a family’s malignancy, the film offers neither bloody catharsis nor withering critique. Unlike in the director’s La Cérémonie, which presented a similar family in a very similar home, no outsider arrives to rupture the household. The Flower of Evil is an inside job, an almost affectionate consideration of a ruling-class family that can be trusted to destroy itself.

When the protagonist of Beyond Borders, London-based American socialite Sarah Jordan, makes her first excursion into a Third World hellhole, she’s met by brusque but impassioned humanitarian Dr. Nick Callahan, who makes fun of her for wearing perfume. On subsequent trips, Sarah apparently skips the toiletries, but the movie never does. It’s always deodorized, even in the bleakest of refugee camps and war zones. That could be because director Martin Campbell, whose credits include The Mask of Zorro and GoldenEye, can’t help but think in commercial terms. What seems more likely, however, is that the film’s well-meaning makers decided that they could educate the shallow American moviegoer about the plight of the world’s refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons) only via a glossy, formulaic romantic adventure.

People who regularly read a newspaper—or, for that matter, followed the career of Bob Geldof—might assume that Beyond Borders is unnecessary. After all, Sarah is played by Angelina Jolie, whose role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not exactly been underpublicized. It turns out, however, that Jolie herself doesn’t read the papers or remember “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: According to the film’s press kit, she actually learned about refugee issues from reading Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s script.

The film’s opening skirmish comes in London in 1984, at a fundraising event where an upscale crowd dances—ironically, I guess—to a Clash tune. Nick (Clive Owen) bursts into the hotel ballroom, protesting that the relief organization sponsoring the party has eliminated funding for the camp where he and a few cohorts attend to some 30,000 starving, diseased, and wounded Ethiopians. Thrilled by this display of altruistic brawn, Sarah organizes and leads a food-and-medicine caravan to the site, where Callahan ridicules her dilettantish good intentions but is touched by the way she plays Schumann on the camp piano. (The what?) Before she heads back to London, Sarah has earned approving smiles from the less prickly relief workers and even a friendly nod from Nick.

They’re in love, of course. Sarah reunites with her useless (and unfaithful) husband (Linus Roache), has two children, and takes a job with UNHCR in London. But she lives for the missions to global hot spots where she can both aid and embrace Nick. In Cambodia, she arrives just in time for an ugly confrontation with the Khmer Rouge and a forced march to the Thai border. A few years later, she heads to Chechnya to rescue Nick from the rebels who are holding him hostage. Everything in Sarah and Nick’s relationship that hasn’t already been seen in a Tracy-Hepburn picture echoes some recent geopolitical action flick: Compare the Cambodian episode to Tears of the Sun, in which Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci lead a group of refugees to the border of a Rwanda stand-in, and the Chechen one to Harrison’s Flowers, in which Andie McDowell travels to Yugoslavia to retrieve hubby David Strathairn.

Because Beyond Borders doesn’t end happily ever after, Campbell, Jolie, & Co. may think they’ve made a brave film. In fact, the movie is as professional and predictable—and only slightly more political—than a James Bond outing. Everything from the star’s appearance (glamorous even when facing grenades and land mines) to the color schemes (yellow for Ethiopia, blue for Chechnya) is straight from the Director’s Guild guidebook to shooting star vehicles in exotic climes. That’s no reason to doubt Jolie’s sincerity, but Geldof was sincere, too—and that didn’t mean anyone wanted to hear his albums. CP