Lullaby (Chanson douce, France 2019)

Louise (Karin Viard, left) with Myriam (Leïla Bekhti)

This title popped up on my DVD rental list and at first I couldn’t remember why I had put it there originally. I clearly missed the UK and US releases back in early 2020 but I quickly realised that it was a film by Lucie Borleteau (whose film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (2014) I really liked) and that it was adapted from a novel by Leïla Slimani, whose first book I had read in 2019. Chanson douce as a novel won the Prix Goncourt and was a bestseller in France. In the UK it was translated as Lullaby and tellingly in the US it became The Perfect Nanny. These titles carried over to the films. I think the American title is misleading, but having said that, there are many films with the title Lullaby and I think that the ironic French title is arguably the best. But it seems that many UK and US reviewers had problems with the film, possibly because of their expectations.

Louise with Mila and baby Adam

Part of the problem may be that Slimani’s novel was inspired by a murder in New York carried out by a nanny and that in turn may have led some reviewers to think that the French film would be a form of horror genre picture. I haven’t seen any of the American films that have been identified with the genre, but I’m familiar with the titles and some of the plot outlines. For many reviewers it seems to be the case that a genre film fails if it doesn’t deliver the expected narrative closure or the various conventional narrative elements along the way. Lucie Borleteau presents a film narrative that is in parts almost ‘procedural’ about the daily duties of a nanny presented with a familiar social realist aesthetic, but then she shifts focus to the psychological breakdown of a character and interweaves this with ideas about fairytales, myths and folklore – and although she doesn’t deliver the expected shocks of a genre horror film, there are still shocking and surprising moments as well as challenges to some of the complacency we may feel faced with a familiar genre. Much of the discussion about the film centres on the ending. Borleteau doesn’t leave the ending ‘open’. She ‘delivers’ but not in the way we might expect.

Louise becomes the mother in many different ways

Myriam (Leïla Bhekti) is a mother of two small children, not yet at school (French children start school at 6, I think) and after being a full time mother for five years she decides that she needs to return to work as a lawyer. Her husband Paul (Antoine Reinartz) works as a music producer and argues that it will cost all of Myriam’s salary to pay for childcare, but she is adamant and they advertise for a nanny. The interview process that we see is perhaps a too familiar montage and it’s obvious that the best candidate is Louise (Karin Viard), although the staging of her interview does drop hints that things might not be what they seem. Perhaps the real purpose of the montage is not to simply create a gentle comedy but to emphasise the significance of the choice of an older white woman who is ‘French’. Louise is eager to please and to work longer hours and become more involved in the family’s affairs. If Miriam wasn’t so busy and focused on her return to work, she would probably have become suspicious of Louise much earlier. There are some subtle pointers to the nuances of bourgeois French life in the narrative. We learn more about Paul’s background, partly through the appearance of his mother Sylvie. Paul’s family seems more middle-class and he adopts a more professional pose in dealing with Louise. Even so he demurs to Myriam, about whom we learn little and who has a more friendly relationship with Louise.

Leïla and Paul take Louise with them on holiday. Is this wise?

The Press Notes for the film are available from UniFrance and I found them to be an interesting read. I think I’d already guessed something about Lucie Borleteau’s approach. She mentions Hitchcock and Polanski and their films Vertigo (for Kim Novak’s performance) and Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. I was reminded of an earlier film by a young director, À la folie . . . pas du tout (France 2002) directed by Laetitia Colombani who also mentioned Hitchcock and Polanski. That film too was criticised because it cast Audrey Tautou in a role that hinted at her rom-com persona being important but then switched to a much more disturbing narrative. I have a vague idea how French film schools work and I think they produce directors who are much more interesting than US/UK reviewers expect. Leïla Slimani is also interviewed in the Notes and she adds another range of references that Borleteau must have navigated. Slimani mentions Chabrol and also Jo Losey’s The Servant with Dirk Bogarde. Chabrol does seem quite important with his bourgeois satires such as La cérémonie (France 1995) with Isabelle Huppert as the disruptive interloper who ‘turns’ Sandrine Bonnaire’s maid against her employers.

The ‘family’ in the park

Lullaby as a film ‘belongs’ to Karin Viard, a vastly experienced actor, who seems able to tackle any kind of role. I last saw her in La famille Bélier (2014) in mainly a comic role. Louise is a very difficult role, I think, but Viard takes it in her stride. She might well have been initially cast by one of her previous directors, Maïwenn whose name still appears on Lullaby’s credits as a writer. For some reason Maïwenn left the production and Lucie Borleteau stepped in. She and Leïla Slimani seem to in agreement on the approach to the story. I wonder if the film would have been very different directed by Maïwenn? Either way this is a film primarily about women. There are five female roles of importance with Louise, Myriam and Sylvie plus 5 year-old Mila and Wafa, the mother who Louise meets each day in the square. There are moments in the film when racism directed against Maghrebi migrants seems about to become important though I don’t remember anything directed at Myriam (Leïla Bhekti was born in Paris to Algerian parents and she is a high profile star in France and married to Tahar Rahim). It’s more important that Myriam is a bourgeois parent who doesn’t mix with the other parents in the park and isn’t aware of Louise’s home district, an area of social housing an RER train ride away.

I found Lullaby an intriguing film and much of the time I could almost not bear to watch, fearful of what was going to happen next. Melodrama and horror are close together as expressionist modes of cinema and Lullaby is a form of family melodrama mixed with a psychological thriller that gets out of control. I recommend the film. Here’s the US trailer.

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