by Elena Lazic
- Canadian actress and director Monia Chokri returns to directing with an ebulliently creative and funny second feature, adapted from the Catherine Léger play
A screen adaptation of a play about sexism sounds like a real nightmare. Yet Babysitter, directed by Canadian actress and filmmaker Monia Chokri and based on Catherine Léger’s play of the same name, is more like a dream. Premiering in the Midnight section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film gleefully circumvents all obvious didactic arguments about misogyny and men’s role in the oppression of women by emphasising the lived-in experience of its characters, where their desires, fears and frustrations are mysteries even to themselves.
The film’s inventive visual language — candy-coloured set design, soft focus cinematography, retro zoom-ins and -outs and frequent close-ups — underlines the incongruous and the absurd, omnipresent even in the lives of superficially ordinary couple Cédric (Patrick Hivon) and Nadine (director Monia Chokri): he works a boring 9-to-5 office job, she takes care of their screaming toddler. If they looked at each other, they’d see that both of them go through their lives with the same stunned look on their faces, as though utterly astonished to find themselves in their present situations. Nadine is constantly bewildered, exhausted by the child she is taking care of on her own, and while Cédric has it a lot easier and simply grins his way through life, he too is utterly passive, as seen in the film’s opening scene.
At a boxing match, Cédric and his two office colleagues engage in typical macho bonding behaviour, drinking, cheering on the contenders and talking up random women in the audience. Carried away by the ambient enthusiasm, the happy-go-lucky Cédric then kisses on the cheek a local female TV journalist who is reporting live from the event, immediately creating a Québec-wide uproar and sparking a national debate on sexism. Cédric is even more overwhelmed than usual, but his colleague (Hubert Proulx) and his brother Jean-Michel (Steve Laplante) have all kinds of ideas of how the helpless man should react, and much of the film’s momentum lies in the latter’s own breathless theorising on men’s role in women’s liberation. One of the first things Jean-Michel says in the film is that he is a feminist — a red flag if ever there was one — but the film, unlike Jean-Michel, is interested in much more nebulous and applicable definitions for feminism and women’s freedom.
Many of Babysitter’s most slyly amusing and perceptive moments find Jean-Michel and Cédric’s endless chats about how to be better allies undermined by a casual observation from Nadine as she wanders into the kitchen, exhausted and slowly spiralling into an existential crisis. While Cédric’s letter of apology to the journalist becomes, with Jean-Michel’s encouragement and the promise of a lucrative book deal on the horizon, an entire series of apologetic letters to hundreds of (famous) women, the wide-eyed Nadine silently struggles with the actual problems caused by her position in society. Especially refreshing about Babysitter is the way it makes well known issues and ironies around traditional relationships between men and women not simply appear new again, but also feel as bewildering as they really are when experienced in real life. When Nadine decides she no longer wants to spend her entire time caring for the baby and doing laundry, she leaves both in the hands of her husband and returns to work — a pragmatic and seemingly simple solution that Chokri and Léger show isn’t in reality simple at all. In her office’s parking lot, Nadine’s colleagues barely conceal their contempt for her baby talk and for her taking maternity leave.
Cédric’s decision to hire a nanny is on the surface just as logical, but this particular babysitter will come crashing into the lives of those characters like a pure agent of chaos — and of true liberation. The young and attractive Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is an uninhibited young woman who couldn't care less about what others think or about labels of any kind. In her presence, the men’s endless philosophising crumbles like a house of cards, while Nadine sees a way to define herself outside of the restricting roles that were suffocating her.
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