A usurper melodrama by any other name is still a usurper melodrama, and Fabrice du Welz’s latest doesn’t really try to cloak its genre conventions: “Inexorable” might just as well be titled “Single White Female Nanny” or “Fatal Domestic.” Still, if this isn’t the most surprising or original among the Belgian helmer’s character-driven thrillers to date, it does compel attention with its elegantly crafted tale of a wealthy family infiltrated by a young woman with a hidden agenda. The mix of art-house bona fides and pulp satisfactions should put the Toronto fest world premiere in a position to attract sales in various formats around the globe.
Having appeared in the director’s last film “Adoration,” Benoit Poelvoorde (still best known to many from his feature debut in 1992’s notorious serial-killer mock-doc “Man Bites Dog”) is back, as the central figure this time. His Marcel is a celebrity veteran writer whose titular breakthrough novel was discovered by editor Jeanne (Melanie Doutey). They’ve been married for the twenty-five years since, and are now moving into the vast country estate she’s inherited from her publishing-house tycoon father with their only child Lucie (Janaina Halloy Fokan) and a newly-acquired Great Pyrenees.
They’ve got their careers to attend to as well as a full renovation of the palatial premises, so apparently it has occurred to no one that a new dog requires some training. Ergo, when big white Ulysses goes missing on the property, everyone is very grateful that he’s found by passing stranger Gloria (Alba Gaia Bellugi), who seems handy with dogs — and children. She provides the couple with a sob story that draws their sympathy. Soon they are offering her pay as a sort of playmate/babysitter, then a place to stay, then a permanent position. It does not occur to them that Gloria, if that is even her name, has carefully orchestrated all of this. Let alone that she has beaten herself to claim being attacked (and prompt the offer of safer housing), or stolen money to get the pre-existing housekeeper dismissed on suspicion of theft.
You might ask why these intelligent, worldly people entrust their child to a total stranger, or accept her word as truth over anyone else’s. Particularly since Gloria seems nervous and furtive even before she begins driving a wedge between each family member (including the dog) in earnest. Marcel is the first to truly notice her irrational behavior, which both attracts and frightens him. That is apt, since it turns out that for complicatedly scandalous love/hate reasons we only eventually grasp, he is the reason she is here.
Poor Ulysses aside, no one here is exactly an innocent party — even young Lucie is a bit of a pampered handful. Still, it’s a functional-enough nuclear unit until their new “helper” starts yanking on every last frayed seam in their relationships. In particular, she knows where the bodies are buried in Marcel’s past, even as she professes to being his biggest fan.
The disbelief “Inexorable” requires audiences to suspend gets easier as the film gains momentum, growing increasingly stylized towards a high 1970s giallo level of luridly colorful presentation as events become more outré. Still, the film is arguably more defined by the moneyed splendor of its leading figures’ surroundings than the mad malevolence of their interloper. Without caving to decadent caricature, du Welz’s co-writers and actors create full-blooded characters whose privilege has fed their foibles — indeed, we get rather more vivid a glimpse of the literary couple’s role-playing sex life than we may have wanted. Yet somehow it is wee Lucie who reveals the freakiest hidden side in a birthday-party set-piece that goes way over-the-top, but a neat conceptual flourish nonetheless.
Poelvoorde delivers an expert descent from pompous jerk to desperate prey, Bellugi ceding to him the film’s most flamboyant notes even as Gloria gets ever more glam in her craziness. Douley is also formidable as a spouse who can only be pushed so far, making Marcel’s eventual panic even more understandable. Only fluent French readers, however, will be able to absorb (along with Jeanne) the untranslated backstory secrets that scroll behind the film’s final credits.
An accomplished production package makes great use of the imposing location (Chateau de Roumont near Champs, Libin in Belgium) as showcased by both cinematographer Manu Dacosse and production designer Emmanuel de Meulemeester. Also of note is Vincent Cahay’s original score, which utilizes a discrete mix of minimalist music, ambient sounds, and one memorable blast of thrash metal.