This French picture, directed by the little-known Joël Santoni, was adapted by Santoni and Philippe Setbon (Mr Frost) from a 1971 novel by the English writer Joan Aiken – like Nicholas Blake, Ruth Rendell and a few others, more appreciated by filmmakers in France than her home territory, it seems. Aside from a sub-plot that exposes France’s well-known clumsiness when it comes to making pop music, it’s a sharp, undated picture and examines a class conflict in home invasion terms that prefigures Harry, He’s Here to Help, The Serpent (also from an English book), Cache, Inside and much other recent French horror.
Architect David Briand (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has built a minimalist concrete showplace home in a flat, rainy, desolate expanse of the countryside and now lives there with his wife Elaine (Nicole Garcia) and their little daughter Cric (Cerise Lerclerc). Already, there are undertones – the house is plainly horrible to live in, Elaine misses her demanding former job as a record producer, and David is desperately after a big commission to make up for some vague professional lapse. Then a shabby caravan turns up, and Cappy (Jean-Pierre Bisson), a limping, ingratiating-yet-resentful lower-class lout with a prosthetic hand nags David into giving him a job as a gardener for which he is obviously unqualified, and this leads – when Elaine gets a chance to start right away in her old job, at the end of a commute involving bike, bus and train – to Cappy’s red-haired wife Hazel (Dominique Lavanant) being retained as a stop-gap nanny for Cric. While the parents are off all day, Cric is left with Hazel and her glum (medicated) daughter, who sullenly plunks a single toy but is cooed over by her mother at the expense of the kindly but wary Cric.
The backstory is that David was partially responsible for the accident which crippled Cappy, and the couple have already tortured to death the other architects behind the bodge-job that led to a building site accident, but their long-term plan is to kill David and Elaine, forcing Elaine to write a will leaving the house (and, worse, custody of Cric) to them. Because we follow both parents (including spells in the studio with the soulless soul music everyone seems happy with), the tension at home is relieved, but the most affecting stretches are those that find Cric at the capricious mercy of the cake-withholding, furniture-rearranging, cat-hating (and –killing) Hazel, who plainly spends her life forcing others to go along with her demented fantasies of the way things ought to be. In one big shock moment, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why the film hasn’t much been seen outside France, David gets home early to find that Cric is being punished for incontinence (a side-effect of the anti-psychotic medications Hazel is forcing on her) by being tied naked to the toilet.
The climax of the film, as expected, goes beyond the cat-and-mouse stuff and has Elaine, in a scarlet dress, performing superhumanly to rescue her daughter from the wicked stepmother Hazel – Cappy is ironically disposed of in another falling building, and it comes down to a confrontation between good and bad mothers in a watertower hostage situation, with a final nudge coming from the character everyone has ignored. It’s a given of these things that the middle-class man is culpable and worthless, giving the monstrous lower orders a good reason for taking extreme steps to revenge, but there’s also a fairytale, female self-empowerment streak with Garcia’s supermum coming into her own once she’s shot of her husband and going into overdrive against Lavanant’s memorable psycho harpie.