Film Review: “Babysitter” — The Teaches of Peaches

By Nicole Veneto

Babysitter tackles the ambiguities of misogyny head-on in a 35 mm sugar rush of magical suburban realism.

Babysitter, directed by Monia Chokir, now streaming on Mubi.

The chameleon-esque Nadia Tereszkiewicz as Amy in Babysitter.

Who — or rather what, exactly — is a misogynist?

We’d like to think the answer is self-evident: a sexist, a women-hater, a male chauvinist, noxious anti-abortion politicians, aggrieved incels, pseudo-intellectual grifters bemoaning the loss of “traditional” family values, and anyone who generally takes women to be inferior to men. By definition, a misogynist is someone (oftentimes male, but not necessarily) who is misogynistic or holds misogynistic beliefs about women. But is being misogynistic truly the same as being a misogynist? At what point does an action or an attitude become an identity?

This is where the role of intent comes into question, because it’s possible to be misogynistic without consciously holding misogynistic intent (so called “benevolent” sexism). Plenty of straight-up misogynists don’t believe themselves or their views to be misogynistic. Even what’s considered to be misogynistic changes over time and depends on different historical contexts. If #MeToo has had any real cultural impact, it’s in re-contextualizing certain actions and attitudes that, once taken in jest, are now considered to be misogynistic, regardless of the intent behind them. The question remains: is a misogynist always aware that they are being misogynistic? Can a misogynist be woefully ignorant of their own misogyny?

With her sophomore feature Babysitter, French-Canadian actress-turned-director Monia Chokri tackles the ambiguities of misogyny head-on in a 35 mm sugar rush of magical suburban realism. Chokri, best known for her collaborations with Xavier Dolan (Laurence Anyways, Heartbeats), directs and co-stars in this film adaptation of Catherine Léger’s stage play about a beleaguered Québécois couple whose lives are turned upside down by a whimsical young babysitter who may or may not be a figment of their imagination. Premiering alongside Fresh in the Midnight section at this year’s Sundance, Babysitter is a beguiling comedy about misogyny, sexual politics, and motherhood that feels as if it is one twist away from devolving into surrealist horror. Lacquered in dreamy pastels and soft-focus lenses, Chokri’s tongue-in-cheek #MeToo satire may not be as bonkers as Greener Grass or as unsettling as David Lynch’s forays into suburbia’s heart of darkness, but it’s an offbeat little gem of a film combining the surrealism of Pasolini’s Teorema with the ironic stylings of Adult Swim programming.

Meet Cédric (Patrick Hivon), a forty-something chauvinist with a chronic case of Tex Avery wolf-syndrome, out on the town with his work buddies getting blitzed and ogling women at an MMA championship fight. At the start, Josée Deshaies’ lush cinematography and Pauline Gaillard’s sharp editing strike an ironic note, unleashing a rapid-fire montage of lecherous male gazes; as the two MMA fighters beat each other to a bloody pulp in the ring, Cédric and his pals hit on a pair of (much younger) women seated in front of them, the camera matching their salacious eyes with tight close-ups on curvaceous butts, boobs, and hips.

Swept up in the laddish atmosphere, Cédric stumbles out of the match and into a #MeToo moment when he drunkenly kisses a female reporter’s forehead on live television. The incident goes viral throughout Quebec overnight, resulting in Cédric’s indefinite suspension from work because of his boneheaded conduct as well as the deluge of misogynistic comments the video attracts online. It’s undeniably non-consensual, but Cédric’s sloppy smooch is hardly the “aggressive assault” the backlash makes it out to be. This ambiguity is intentional on Chokri’s part: the more overt assault in Léger’s original play has been changed to make a statement about how #MeToo re-contextualized certain actions/behaviors for their misogynistic ramifications, regardless of intent.

Too self-centered to comprehend why his inebriated stunt was so offensive, Cédric nonetheless tries to make amends by writing a letter of apology to the reporter. Cédric’s brother Jean-Michel (Steve Laplante), a virtue-signaling journalist, exacerbates matters with a scathing op-ed on the incident that intensifies Cédric’s fifteen minutes of shame. Under Jean-Michel’s (terrible) advice, Cédric’s letter of remorse turns into a multi-chapter memoir apologizing to all the women he’s wronged, from Chantal the reporter to Kim Kardashian. Notably absent from Cédric’s considerations is Nadine (Chorki pulling double duty), his neglected wife/girlfriend and the mother of his colicky infant daughter Léa. In the throes of postpartum depression, Nadine has been left alone and unsupported at home. Cédric’s suspension provides a brief respite from child rearing, allowing Nadine to check into a local motel for naps and hot-tub bubble baths under the guise of returning to work.

Unsurprisingly, Cédric becomes too engrossed in writing a future bestseller to change diapers or mix together baby formula. This is when Amy (the chameleon-esque Nadia Tereszkiewicz), a fairy godmother in the form of a manic pixie dream girl, enters the couples’ lives in a whirlwind of roller skates and scrunchies. Described as “Bridgette Bardot disguised as a nanny,” Amy arrives at their suburban home as if magically summoned, quickly offering and securing her services as a babysitter after she effortlessly calms Léa’s perpetual wailing. This enigma of a girl has the uncanny ability to be different things to different people, not unlike Terrence Stamp’s nameless visitor in Teorema: to Cédric, she’s a male fantasy straight out of an ’80s movie — the “hot babysitter” par excellence as she exists in pop culture; to Nadine, Amy’s a path towards self-actualization and sexual liberation outside the confines of motherhood; and to Jean-Michel, she’s an enticing Lolita sunbathing on the lawn one moment and a growling she-devil playing sinister games with his libido the next.

Amy’s influence on their lives amounts to a revelatory play on different feminine identities, a mission in keeping with avant-garde feminism’s goal of satirizing gender roles. To some extent, Amy is the personification of the movement’s objective, effecting a radical change in the symbolic/aesthetic realm that eventually translates into how Cédric, Jean-Michel, and Nadine experience the social and political realities of gender. Her very presence upends their lives and everything they thought they know about misogyny and motherhood, perfectly encapsulated by Amy’s rationalization for wearing a French maid’s uniform on the job. Perhaps, in the minds of some, it’s an inherently sexual outfit. But to Amy, it’s all performative costuming for the job: “I’d say, objectively, it’s a maid’s uniform. Like for school girls. Their uniforms aren’t for sex.”

The undercurrent of Technicolor horror running just beneath the dreamy, rose-tinted surface of Babysitter makes for an especially heady watch. Chokri mixes and matches genre stylings in such a way that the viewer is constantly on guard for a sudden turn into nightmarish chaos.

Things never get so crazy as to devolve into outright horror per se, but the ambiguity of who — or more importantly, what — Amy is becomes so unsettling that, once she starts taunting Jean-Paul with Pazuzu’s voice coming out of her mouth, you’re fair game for whatever else Chokri wants to throw at you (including a strap-on dildo). As for a definitive answer to what makes somebody a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist, Chorki leaves that question for the audience to grapple with. Like Amy, Chokri sees it as her duty to nudge us into reflecting upon our own lives and let us come to our own conclusions.

Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts