The clumsy, drunken lunge and uninvited cheek-kiss that precipitates the action in wildly uneven French-Canadian comedy “Babysitter” is oddly appropriate for a film that can also feel like the victim of misguided, intrusive, if hardly malevolent exuberance. Far less coherent than her more focused and confident debut “A Brother’s Love,” Monia Chokri’s second feature is basically a series of sketches, some of which comment on ingrained, unconscious misogyny, while others lampoon the culture of hypersensitivity around less severe examples of unexamined sexism, such as that forced kiss. This makes it apt, too, that “Babysitter” has such a sugary aesthetic: It often looks like the cake it wants both to have and to eat.
An awkward prologue bears the scars of restrictive pandemic shooting. Through headachey close-ups, whip-pans and crash zooms, Chokri tries to fabricate the atmosphere of a crowded arena where an MMA title fight is underway. The pans and zooms land cartoonishly on boobs and butts, as dapper engineer and new dad Cédric (Patrick Hivon) cheerfully downs solo cups of stadium beer while his loudmouthed, proudly unreconstructed buddy (Hubert Proulx) casually ranks the attractiveness of online women.
A bevy of beverages and a win for the local favorite later, Cédric is on the street celebrating when he recognises the TV news reporter covering the fight. While she’s still live on air, despite her visibly and vocally recoiling, he delivers the fateful, sloppy smackeroo. Cédric’s exhausted wife Nadine (Chokri, directing herself to the film’s best, most dimensional performance) sees the immediately uploaded clip as she’s scrolling through pictures of Instagram beach bodies while breastfeeding their baby Léa. She’s only mildly perturbed by it: Her weary interactions with her pleasant but passive husband have a back-to-back-in-bed quality at the best of times. Cédric, too, assumes his momentary lapse in judgment will blow over.
Instead, it becomes a cause célèbre, thanks in large part to a condemnatory newspaper article penned by Cédric’s holier-than-thou brother Jean-Michel (Steve Laplante), and Cédric is suspended from his job. He’s frustrated and befuddled, until he and Jean-Michel hit on the idea of writing not just an apology letter to the journalist he assaulted, but a whole book of apology letters to women in the public eye from Beyoncé to Kim Kardashian: the mea-culpa memoir of a newly reformed sexist. Only problem is, with Nadine now back at work — or pretending to be, given that she’s been scared off by spiteful co-workers bitching about her baby-centrism behind her back — who will look after Léa while Cédric writes?
Enter Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), the babysitter of the title, who appears as if by some Mary Poppins magic and promptly bonds with the squalling infant. Unlike Ms. Poppins however, the preternaturally amenable Amy is a sex fantasy made flesh: a young, blonde, buxom beauty to whose coquettish, freely offered charms Cédric is apparently oblivious, though both Jean-Michel and Nadine are entranced by her.
The film is based on screenwriter Catherine Léger’s play, and perhaps the herky-jerk structure works on stage. On screen, however, it just feels undisciplined, as its Quentin Dupieux-style visual drollery never quite gels with its more obvious, broadly smutty farce. For a film designed as a take-no-prisoners provocation, meanwhile, it consistently pulls its punches, right down to the idea that a national scandal could ensue from so minor an incident — when a scant few years ago, just south of the border, a much worse man embroiled in far less innocuous allegations not only avoided material consequences, but went on to be elected President.
But then a certain timidity pervades “Babysitter.” This is a film that contrives, for example, to have Amy on her knees with her red-lipsticked mouth forming a perfect sex-doll ‘O’ in front of Nadine, who is clad in lingerie embellished with a large strap-on dildo — only to cut to a demure shot of the two of them side by side in a post-coital haze. The film is replete with cleavage and sexy maid’s outfits and perspiring men adjusting their bulging pants, but curiously low on actual sexual content: all titillation, no consummation.
Still, with aim this scattershot, and most of the targets being of the large, unmoving variety, a few pellets can’t help but hit their mark. Nadine’s habit of casually puncturing Jean-Michel’s self-righteous mansplanations of contemporary feminism is good for a few laughs. And Amy, with her semi-mystical ability to intuit sexual hang-ups and help out the hung-up, is a beguiling creation who deserves to be the hero of a more biting satire, before magically vanishing into the mist — presumably on her next mission of sexual mercy.