The late eighties/early nineties saw a slew of woman-in-peril movies (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Hand that Rocks The Cradle, The Stepfather) riffing on the sexual politics of Fatal Attraction to create threats, male and female, to the American family unit. Usually written and directed by men, they formed a classier, better-dressed variation on the slasher movie for an audience growing up to relish such stabby exploitation. Big hits at the time, they’re not so fondly remembered now; in the 21st century, sisters are doing it for themselves when it comes to exploring rather than exploiting feminine fears on the big screen
Based on a real life murder case, dramatized and embellished in Leila Slimani’s award-winning book, Lullaby was retitled The Perfect Nanny in the US, presumably to hark back to previous genre entries. But Lucie Borleteau’s film has no intentions to thrill, or to exploit; it’s a rare film that attempts to get inside the head of the covert interloper in question, Louise. Played by Karen Viard, we see her polishing her shoes and briskly walking to work early in the morning. She has an air of sadness, but also a professional demeanour that impresses Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz); a Shallow Grave-style introduction reveals the comically obvious flaws of other candidates for the job.
But while the couple’s motives are clear and obvious, Louise has hidden depths; she overdoes the protective act when Myriam’s little boy gets into a sandpit argument, her finances are questionable, and she also seems to have issues about being afraid of the water. A hallucinogenic scene involving octopuses adds a sexual frisson, an air of alienation developed when we see Louise lying naked, listening to a news report about Parisian riots. Louise suffers from a detachment which intensifies her connections to the family, and Lullaby is a character study, not a thriller; we don’t have or needs cats leaping through shattering glass windows for cheap jump scares here.
Lullaby is an excellent film, well worth Viard’s Ceasar nomination for best actress; the horrific ending manages to shock without revelling in gratuitous detail. Middle-aged white male critics won’t understand why, but The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is about as relevant as Mary Poppins Returns here; Lullaby looks with supple skill at the relationship between two women, and lazy men seeking the demonization of rogue, crazy females need not apply.
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