Dir: Lucie Borleteau; Starring: Karin Viard, Leïla Bekhti, Antoine Reinartz, Martine Chevallier. 15 cert, 99 min
Leïla Slimani’s 2016 novel Lullaby was a huge bestseller in France, won the Prix Goncourt, and was published in America under the more commercially grabby title The Perfect Nanny. In making such a splash, it wasn’t uncontroversial: it was noted that Slimani had borrowed elements from two real-life cases of child death, naming her main character after the British au pair Louise Woodward (convicted of manslaughter in 1997) and borrowing many details from a horrific double murder in New York in 2012, carried out by a child-minder called Yoselyn Ortega.
The subject, which attracted a tabloid feeding frenzy in both those cases, sends shivers down the spine. And Slimani’s book makes no bones about it – “L’enfant est mort”, runs its opening words. Adapting it is a difficult trick to pull off: you could nudge it down the psycho-thriller route of, say, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, but that film fundamentally stops short of dead babies. There’s a sort of compact with the audience that genre excitement won't allow that degree of horror. Besides, Slimani’s novel – as the awards imply – aimed to be taken seriously.
Lucie Borleteau’s film, new to streaming, dispenses with Slimani’s flashback structure and tries a softly-softly approach that’s compelling and insinuating, at least until the final stretch. It introduces us first to Maryam (a rattled, convincing Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz), a successful middle-class couple in Paris with a 5-year-old daughter, Mila (Assya Da Silva) and a boy called Adam approaching his first birthday. Maryam, who’s of North African extraction, has taken several years’ leave from her high-powered job as a lawyer to raise the children, and itches to get back to work, which can only be achieved if a full-time nanny is found.
Enter Louise, played by 54-year-old character actress Karin Viard as a stickler for order and the answer to Maryam’s prayers. She shops, she cleans, she does the school pick-ups and takes charge of birthday parties. She’s such a comprehensive guardian angel that Maryam guiltily takes a back seat as a mother. But Louise has no other life: after an unhappy marriage, she’s estranged from her own daughter, whom we never even meet, and latches on to this new family as if it were hers. Bit by bit, her emotional involvement becomes unhealthy, and then it becomes dangerous.
Viard’s trick is to make Louise quick to take offence and passive-aggressively signal it, so that unspoken resentments of unguessed intensity build up. It’s an expertly unsettling turn, thriving on scenes where an ambiguous line is crossed: at what point does play-acting as a ravenous monster get truly scary? She has a set-to with Maryam about sell-by dates on yoghurts, and becomes feared by other nannies in her local playground for her strict rules about, say, borrowing toys.
Most of these women are immigrants at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, as was Ortega. In flipping the dynamic by making Louise white and Maryam a woman of colour, Slimani created a differently awkward scenario just as racially fraught in its own way, even if Borleteau lets some of its potential slide.
In fact, the closer her film creeps – and creeps is the word – towards the grisly climax of Louise’s story, the more it tiptoes away into noncommittal obliqueness. Slimani’s forensic style, it’s true, can’t really work on screen without coming off as callous and grotesque. But the alternative – hiding away from it – doesn’t work either. We get a discomfiting character study – and excellent vehicle for Viard – stuck with an ending it can’t really handle.