'Perfect Nanny’ ('Chanson douce'): Film Review

Studio Canal
Better get that nanny cam.

Karin Viard stars in French director Lucie Borleteau’s adaptation of Leïla Slimani’s prizewinning novel, which was inspired by a true story.

When a movie has a title like Perfect Nanny, you can be pretty sure that the eponymous character will be anything but perfect. In fact, you can be sure she’ll be the polar opposite of perfect — or that, as in this disturbing yet unconvincing French psychological thriller, she may do the one thing you wish a nanny would never do.

Based on Leïla Slimani’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel (whose original title, Chanson douce, or Lullaby, is more subtle and evocative), the film comes with a major spoiler alert that may make adequate reviewing difficult, especially since the book begins with the ending and then flashes back to the events leading up to it.

Here, director Lucie Borleteau (Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey) tries to provide a more classically suspenseful telling whose finale, at least for those viewers who haven't read the best-selling novel, may come as either a total shock or a total WTF. Truth be told, what happens in Perfect Nanny, which was inspired by a case that occurred in Manhattan back in 2012, is so unfathomable that it may be impossible to explain in a reasonable way.

Nevertheless, Borleteau and co-writers Jérémie Elkaïm and Maïwenn (both actors and directors as well) give it their best shot, depicting the devastating events that befall a 30-something couple when they decide to hire a nanny to help out with childcare. The couple in question, Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz), are your typical pair of Parisian bobos, with a comfy apartment on the Right Bank and two young children, toddler Adam, and 5-year-old Mila (Assya Da Silva), who are taking up all of Myriam's time.

After some deliberation, the couple decides to hold a casting session for nannies and soon end up with Louise (Karin Viard), a 50ish French woman with good credentials and a firm but loving hand with the children. She comes as a major relief at first, allowing Myriam to get back to work and also get closer to Paul, from whom she's grown estranged under the weight of her kids. In an early montage, we learn that Louise not only cooks, cleans and makes morning coffee for the couple, but is a welcome presence in the lives of Adam and Mila, reading them stories, playing dress up and imitating a scary monster.

That Louise may, in fact, be the latter in real life is not all that surprising. The first time we meet her, she appears as a little too tightly wound, like the tiniest thing will make her go pop. Her attempts to be affable seem fake or forced. Played with icy aplomb by veteran Viard (Polisse, Delicatessen), Louise doesn't seem right from the very start, with Borleteau and cameraman Alexis Kavyrchine (Memoir of War) framing her in isolated, medium close-ups that tend to accentuate her oddness.

One of the problems with Perfect Nanny is how much Myriam and Paul seem to be blind to Louise’s foibles, which begin when she reacts extremely poorly to their light criticism, then continue when she shows up earlier and earlier at their place in the morning, basically moving into the household and becoming the principal caregiver. Perhaps the idea is to show that the young couple, who have got their mojo back now that someone else is changing the diapers, is blind because they chose to be so. Why look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one who’s made their lives so much easier?

Borleteau, whether intentionally or not, winds up shifting the blame to Myriam and Paul for much of what comes after, showing them as way too self-involved to see what’s happening. Even at home, Myriam is constantly working on her laptop and barely acknowledges her kids. In one scene, she locks herself in the bedroom when Louise throws a birthday party for Mila and her friends. Meanwhile, Paul, who’s a music producer, is so obsessed with a new album that he has little time for anything else.

Because Myriam and Paul seem so aloof, by far the most touching character in Perfect Nanny is actually the nanny herself, at least until the closing five minutes. Borleteau portrays Louise as both the victim of a long and difficult life — we learn that her husband died and her 25-year-old daughter no longer talks to her; she lives in a ramshackle apartment somewhere in the distant suburbs of Paris — as well as the vulnerable employee of a family unaware of what they truly mean to her.

Possibly the strongest sequence in the film is the one where Myriam and Paul bring Louise along with them on a trip to the island of Formentera, letting her take care of the children while they rekindle their love life. She manages to fit in with them in her own way — as both part of the family and a complete outsider — and seems to be taking the first vacation in her entire life, basking in the sea and sun as if they finally belonged to her as well.

During such moments, Borleteau intriguingly explores the blurred lines that separate Louise from the people she works for, and how crossing such lines can cause major problems. After all, she spends way more time with the children than Myriam and Paul do, and seems to love them dearly, so how is it that she's little more than hired labor?

While such questions are worth asking, especially at a time when many parents, either by choice or necessity, now have to work full-time to support two-income households, Perfect Nanny begins to slide off the rails when Louise starts sliding into madness. At that point, Borleteau reaches into the grab bag of horror movie tropes (Louise suddenly appears in doorways or windows; Louise loses Mila in the park; Louise pees in a plastic potty…wait, what?) as the score by Pierre Desprats ups the tension in predicable ways.

And so, what at first appeared as a rather nuanced look at questionable parenting and problematic nannying turns into something that feels almost too sinister, or even silly in a shlock horror kind of way, to be true — the catch, of course, being that the story is true. Other art house movies, such as Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent and Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children, have dealt with similar material but made it seem to come out of some sort of dark and burning fatality, as if the perpetrators were driven by forces beyond their control. In Perfect Nanny, the filmmakers attempt to justify Louise’s acts through psychology that never feels fully developed, with indicators and triggers that ultimately feel way too simplistic.

Still, for a good portion of the running time, Borleteau paints a fairly realistic portrait of a modern, middle-class urban couple trying to raise kids while pursuing active adult lives, pinpointing some of the difficulties that entails. Bekhti and Reinartz, however unlikable their characters may be, do a convincing job revealing the compromises that people like Myriam and Paul have to make, and how such compromises are never made easily. In the end, it seems they may have made one compromise too many, and the result is tragedy.

Production companies: Why Not Productions, Pan-Européenne
Cast: Karin Viard, Leïla Bekhti, Antoine Reinartz, Assya Da Silva, Noëlle Renaoude, Rehad Mehal
Director: Lucie Borleteau
Screenwriters: Lucie Borleteau, Jérémie Elkaïm, Maïwenn, based on the novel by Leïla Slimani
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Grégoire Sorlat, Philippe Godeau, Nathalie Gastaldo Godeau
Director of photography: Alexis Kavyrchine
Production designer: Samuel Deshors
Costume designer: Dorothée Guiraud
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Composer: Pierre Desprats
Casting director: Christel Baras
Sales: StudioCanal

In French
110 minutes