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IFI French Film Festival 2019 Review - LULLABY

lullaby review
A disturbed woman takes a job as a nanny for a young Parisian family.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Lucie Borleteau

Starring: Leïla Bekhti, Karin Viard, Antoine Reinartz, Noëlle Renaude

lullaby poster




With her 2015 feature debut, Fidelio: Alice's Journey, writer/director Lucie Borleteau delivered a study of a woman performing a role in a traditionally male environment, that of an engineer on a cargo vessel. Conversely, her second film, Lullaby, adapted from Leïla Slimani's novel (itself inspired by a true story), focusses on an occupation that couldn't be more traditionally associated with women.

Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz) are an affluent young Parisian couple with two young children - pre-schooler Mila and an infant boy. Looking to get back to her job as a lawyer, Myriam holds auditions for a nanny, presented in a montage not unlike the search for a housemate in Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave. The standout candidate is Louise (Karin Viard), a middle-aged widow who comes with impressive references and immediately hits it off with Mila, causing Myriam to hire her on the spot.

lullaby review


From the off, Louise goes above and beyond her work description, even cleaning the apartment while Myriam and Paul are at work. The children seem happy in her care so Myriam and Paul assume all is well. But there are signs that something isn't quite right with Louise. She over-reacts when another toddler in a local playground takes a toy belonging to Myriam's son. She seems personally offended when Myriam suggests a preference for takeout rather than for Louise's cooking. She obsessively insists the children clear their plates (in one particularly creepy moment she forces Mila to lick yoghurt from her nanny's finger).

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Myriam and Paul are so distracted by their careers that they're blind to any such warning signs, even inviting Louise along on their holiday on the coast, where they text each other mean messages mocking their nanny's fuddy-duddy ways. But when Myriam and Paul leave Louise behind on their subsequent break, the cracks in her psyche widen, and her unhinged potential spills out.

lullaby review


Plenty of thrillers in the past have explored the idea of an evil nanny. Lullaby roughly follows the same narrative template as most of its predecessors, and one plot element in particular appears lifted directly from the 1965 Bette Davis vehicle The Nanny. But there's a nuance to the storytelling and a psychological depth afforded to Louise that makes Lullaby stand out from the crowd. While also its antagonist, Louise is Lullaby's central character, the one we spend most time with, and the more demented and dangerous she becomes, the more we sympathise with her. This is partly down to how unlikable Myriam and Paul are, and how disinterested they seem in their children. Away from their kids all day, they pawn them off on Louise in the evenings as they attend parties, and the most damning scene for Myriam sees her hide away in her bedroom, leaving Louise to officiate her daughter's birthday celebrations. When Paul's mother (Noëlle Renaude) angrily grills her son and daughter-in-law as to why they had children if they have so little interest in raising them, they have no reply. There's a subtext here about how the younger French generation is becoming more Anglo-Saxon in its "live to work" attitude, as opposed to the traditional Gallic "work to live" mentality.

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Unlike the hackneyed Joker, which kept telling us how troubled its subject was, Lullaby conveys visually the mental deterioration of Louise. Shocked by discovering a piece of hentai 'tentacle porn' in Myriam and Paul's bedroom, Louise later hallucinates her cramped apartment being invaded by squids, slithering across her kitchen floor as though she's found herself in some cheesy monster movie. Simply watching her clean dishes tells us more about Louise's state of mind than any of Joker's extravagant set-pieces do about its anti-hero's condition.

lullaby review


We worry as much about what Louise might do to herself as we do about the safety of the children in her care. She's not unlike the repressed protagonist of Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (Lullaby might be dubbed 'Haneke Rocks the Cradle', given its slowburning, chilly disposition), and it's easy to imagine Isabelle Huppert might have been first choice for this role. I'm glad the part went to the less stellar Viard, as she really is fantastic here. She plays Louise with a Victorian stiffness, her movements more like those of a bird than a woman, but as the narrative progresses and she literally lets her hair down, her rigidly disciplined facade begins to drop, culminating in a scene involving a child's potty that's a real jaw-dropper.

Lullaby is the sort of European movie that tends to divide audiences in English speaking territories, and some will no doubt dismiss it as nothing more than a well polished piece of exploitation. For me, that's a pretty high compliment, as I believe there will always be a place in cinema for filmmakers who like to prod our sensibilities. Along with the likes of Haneke, Von Trier, Seidl and Noé, we're now seeing the formation of a new wave of women shock merchants, with Borleteau taking her place alongside Eklöf, Ducournau and Fargeat. Lullaby is a welcome addition to their growing canon.

A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.




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