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‘Babysitter’ Review: A Hilarious Psychosexual Horror-Comedy with Technicolor Pop

Sundance: Monia Chokri’s sophomore film is a jaw-dropping laugh riot wearing the skin of a horror throwback.

“Babysitter”

Sundance

Monia Chokri’s “Babysitter” is a riotous comedy in the body of a Technicolor nightmare. The story of middle-aged sex pest Cédric (Patrick Hivon), his over-compensating feminist brother Jean-Michel (Steve Laplante), his depressed wife Nadine — a new mother, played by Chokri herself — and their mysterious, youthful nanny Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) who seems intent on spicing up their love life, the film arrives with thunderous, uncompromising energy that only lets up when Chorkri decides to veer into the phantasmagorical.

Adapted by Catherine Léger from her play of the same name, the French-Canadian satire opens on the verge of an overdose of testosterone and adrenaline, with Cédric and his skeevy pals Carlos (Stéphane Moukarzel) and Tessier (Hubert Proulx) ogling pictures of women on their cellphones while cheering on a bloody cage-fight. With rapid-fire close-ups of breasts, butts, and the trio’s leery eyes, Chokri, cinematographer Josée Deshaies, and editor Pauline Gaillard yank the audience into an uncomfortably ravenous sensory overload with a sickly, plastic façade, as the music by Emile Sornin riffs on the turbo-charged strumming of Dick Dale & The Del Tones. It’s garish, and heightened, and cut within an inch of its life — Line! Butt! Boob! — Bam! Bam! Bam! — and it doesn’t let you catch your breath for a good twenty minutes. During that time, Cédric drunkenly kisses a female reporter, goes viral, gets suspended from his job, and gets outed as a pervert in the press by his own brother, with whom he then decides to co-author a novel-length apology to the reporter (and to all women) for being a sexist pig. Phew.

All the while, Cédric’s wife Nadine languishes in post-partum depression and bodily self-hatred. A woman uncomfortable with her role as a mother, she feels unmoored from her social understanding of herself, so she has little time or energy to consider the brothers’ awakening about their own misogyny — which they soon turn into an increasingly absurd series of self-loathing letters delving into their childhoods. Before long, Nadine begins covertly sleeping in a nearby motel to escape her baby and her upper-middle-class ennui.

With Cédric busy writing his book, a childcare vacuum forms, but is swiftly and inexplicably filled by a strange, Mary-Poppins-by-way-of-candy-bracelets babysitter who seems to rile up Cédric, Jean-Michel, and Nadine’s latent libidos at a time when the former duo is trying to navigate a sexual un-learning, while the latter just wants a nap. Phew.

“Babysitter”

Sundance

There’s a wildly frenetic energy to each shot, edit, and line of mile-a-minute dialogue, which the film enhances with a slew of analog techniques you’d expect from an avant-garde horror film or a languid arthouse drama. Scenes in which characters sit around and argue not only have machine-gun pacing, but a dazzling visual texture, with lens refractions that capture people at opposite ends of the room as if they were yelling at each other up close. It’s cubism turned to screwball farce, made all the more hysterical by the fact that Cédric — with his wide eyes, slick hair, pencil moustache, and generally dopey demeanor — resembles a tuxedoed cartoon wolf mere seconds away from yelling “AWOOGA!”

You can practically hear the springy sound-effects each time a woman enters Cédric’s line of sight, introduced chest-first as his eyes dart in her direction. However, Chokri uses this cartoonish image of bosoms invading his closeups as a means to track the evolution of his gaze, and the way it slowly shifts from one of unapologetic, buffoonish gawking to one of shameful (albeit equally buffoonish) hesitance. It’s the visual language of a broad sex comedy turned to tongue-in-cheek character arc.

There’s an obliviousness, and a sad pompousness, to Hivon and Laplante’s performances as a pair of siblings whose self-centered betterment takes up all the oxygen in the room, and all the visual space in a given scene. However, there’s a touching emotional genuineness to them as well. Chokri, for all her witty lambasting of a certain bent of outspoken male feminist — whose progressivism skirts dangerously close to Puritan — recognizes how terrifying it can be to dive into one’s own issues when they’re so deeply rooted (even if this so-called self-improvement makes collateral damage out of several other women, including Nadine).

When things finally slow down a touch, the film’s numerous visual influences come rushing to the fore, including and especially Technicolor horror from the ’50s and ’60s — Chokri appears to drink from the same well as Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” — only they arrive with an added dash of eccentricity à la the eye-popping baby photography of Anne Geddes.

The film looks as strange as it plays. Its dashes of dreamlike lens flare, and the vivid, summer-y texture of its 35mm exterior shots, create an artifice that always feels on the verge of giving way to something unnerving. The brothers may be a comedy act, but Nadine experiences much of the story as a shadowy horror film, with creeping zooms and Hitchcockian eye-lighting. That is, until she’s afforded the opportunity — by way of Gothic roleplay — to get her mojo back, from which point on, the film’s off-kilter comedic stylings all begin to warp their way around her. In “Babysitter,” liberation is intimate mischief, and empowerment means stealing the spotlight long enough for a good bit of slapstick physicality.

The film’s comedic exchanges have a subtle sense of temporal displacement, with shots and reverse-shots jumping around in space and time, as if they were cut together by a YouTube vlogger, if only to rush each and every frame to its most ludicrous and exaggerated moment. However, once babysitter Amy begins reflecting the characters’ sexual anxieties back to them, this aesthetic displacement takes on a ghostly and self-aware bent. A lurid magical realism emerges, creating surreal situations in which jump-cuts between different moments, and contrasting modes of expression, blur the line between platonic and sexual encounters, leading to scenes of unexpected, dreamlike introspection. The only times the film doesn’t yield wheeze-inducing laughter is when it’s downright hypnotic.

An unhinged work that captures the escalating madness of untangling entire social webs through the lens of a single person or event, “Babysitter” charges through the ruins of mainstream cinema’s post-#MeToo moment. Chokri revels in an uproarious, hyper-stylized and decidedly un-didactic takedown of patriarchal thinking, which she frames as both impotent and all-powerful — both simple in its manifestations and complex in its reasoning — while casting herself as a woman too fed-up, too exhausted, and too sexually unsatisfied to deal with the conversation in the first place.

Grade: A

“Babysitter” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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