Monday, March 09, 2020

Baby Mine Don't You Cry

Some things hit too close to home. The monstrous metaphors of horror movies have taken all sorts of shapes to suit their specific times and places -- from the somnambulist black-and-white goblins of Weimar Germany to the Buick-sized Ants of the American Atomic Age, we channel our anxieties into all sorts of forms, from the otherworldy and impossible on down to the girl next door. The closer things get to real, though, the more queries of morality seem to come into play -- it's the difference between a Friday the 13th movie and Zac Efron playing a hyper-sexualized Ted Bundy. One helps us escape, while the other seems to confront us in ways we're not expecting, and not at all comfortable with.

That's not to say the latter works better -- I'd rather watch Jason Voorhees slaughter nameless camp counselors all in the name of teenaged lust any day than sit through Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile again, that's for sure. But the moral quandary presented by the latter remains richer to me -- by what it asks, demands, of the audience. Sometimes that bet works, and sometimes (like with Efron) it's a wash -- I'd argue that Lucie Borleteau's new French thriller Perfect Nanny, which is about exactly what you think it is given that title, falls closer to the former. It shook.

Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz) are the frazzled parents of two small children, a newborn baby son and a slightly older daughter. On the verge of losing it, Myriam suggests they hire a nanny so she can get back to work -- cue one of those goofy "meet cute" interview montages where several bad candidates wear them down until the heavens part and their ideal candidate shows up at the last minute. Her name is Louise and she's play by French stalwart Karin Viard -- blonde and just matronly frump enough to not be a sexual threat, she fits right in so right it's as if she was always there.

And will always be. Based on the 2016 novel Lullaby by Leïla Slimani -- which re-shaped a true story out of New York a few years earlier, perhaps you'll recall the devastating details -- besides a few dreams and hallucinations that Louise has Perfect Nanny stays uncomfortably close to the ground. Louise is not, you'll be shocked to discover, actually the Perfect Nanny the film's title promises, but instead of devolving into a Hand That Rocks the Cradle melodramatic Guignol of psycho misbehavior, Louise's misdeed are always two steps forward one step back; they feel real. Too real. 

Viard's performance, of a woman whose pained loneliness has infected and blunted her soft touch, becomes agonizing, really hard to watch at times, and it's because she underplays everything beautifully, to a tee. The disconnect between the person Louise sees herself as and the person she's devolving into out of fear of a new abandonment becomes a bridge she can't reattach, or even much recognize -- she's always a step behind herself, looking ahead at the stranger in the mirror, the fog in front, slipping through her grasp. There's no stopping this slide.

That hopelessness, no doubt true to this sort of experience, makes Perfect Nanny a hard watch, much harder than expected. It certainly doesn't pull its punches. Part of me feels as if the movie might be a little bit harder on Myriam, the birth mother whose need to breathe sets this train in motion, than it is on the even more absentee douchebag of a leather-jacket clad dad, but in framing itself as the ultimate parental nightmare, goosebump close to true life, its horrors fall on everybody, viewer included.


Perfect Nanny screens tonight at 6:15pm and on March 11th as part of Film at Lincoln Center's annual "Rendez-vous with French Cinema" series, which we previewed at this link and which opens tomorrow and runs through March 15th. You can check out the entire schedule here. And there are more reviews to come soon...

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