Lullaby (Chanson Douce) ****

January 11th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Lucie Borleteau; Cast: Karin Viard, Leïla Bekhti, Antoine Reinartz, Assya Da Silva, Rehad Mehal; France 2019, 120 min.

Lucie Borleteau follows her accomplished 2014 drama Fidelio:Alice’s Odyssey with another journey into troubled waters, this time adapting Leïla Slimani’s Goncourt winning novel Chanson Douce in an arthouse style nanny thriller.

Borleteau sets herself a tall order. Chanson Douce was one of the best novels of the last decade – but her film certainly passes muster, staying faithful to the page and keeping the keys ideas intact. Slimani uses Brecht’s trick of revealing the story’s tragic outcome in a few lines at the beginning of her novel allowing us to reflect on the detail leading up to tragic ending. Borleteau opts for a more conventional linear structure but there no is chance of this having a happy ending as doubt soon begins to cloud over the upbeat sunny beginning.

In Paris lawyer Myriam (Bekhti) and her husband Paul are delighted when they find the perfect nanny for their two kids. Much older Louise (Viard) has an old-fashioned, subservient attitude to her employers. She is more than happy to play the role of cleaner and cook, as well as taking care of the children: five-year old Mila (Da Silva) and toddler Adam. But it never dawns on Myriam and Paul why Louise is so dedicated, working all hours so the couple can re-kindle their social and even sex life – even taking the kids out in the evenings. The reason for the inter-dependency is perfectly clear as far as Louise is concerned: she is a lonely widow living in social housing, and has a troubled history of drug abuse. She sees this as a job for life. But things start to fall apart after a holiday on Formentera, where Paul and Myriam are forced to look after their kids on the beach because Louise is unable to swim. Back in Paris, Paul and Myriam get a letter from the authorities about the nanny’s delayed tax payments, and it soon becomes clear that Louise’s life fell apart after the death of her husband. Paul then returns home one day to find his daughter covered in make-up and threatens to dismiss the nanny, who is also wearing face paint

The resonance with previous nanny-themed psychodramas such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Saawan Kumar’s Khal-Naaikaa are clear. A woman invests emotionally in a family, hoping to reap the rewards of becoming part of the fold. And Louise cannot imagine a life without them – at least not without the children. There is something deeply strange about her behaviour (and there are some awkward scenes here). Her borderline personality disorder sees her stepping into Myriam’s life and even her bed at one point. Suddenly her life becomes unconscionable without Mila and Adam.

DoP Alexis Kavyrchine’s muted images are suggestive of the psychological meltdown that slowly unfolds, night merging into day. Karin Viard’s Louise is convincing as the quirky but homely nanny, her casting was Slimani’s idea. Lullaby is a nightmarish journey through a labyrinth of emotions – weird and worrying and without an Ariadne thread. AS


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