I’ll come straight to the point — “Emilie” is an exceptional horror-thriller that belongs on your list of films to see, provided you can stomach some disturbing content. This movie hooked me in under a minute, even before its title appeared on screen. Then it kept me glued to it throughout most of its running length. It could have been an even better film — a classic on par with “Psycho” (1960) or “Fatal Attraction”(1987), were it not for some key creative choices about halfway through.
I’d give this movie a 9 out of 10. It succeeds for two reasons — great acting and a script that perfectly employs dialogue that is at first subtle and nuanced, and then increasingly frightening. The title character is a babysitter who is not what the parents expected, in more ways than one. After some deliberately awkward character interaction with the departing parents, she proceeds to subject the children to a series of progressively more demented psychological games. What follows is a thriller brimming with pathos. The movie reminded me a lot of the critically acclaimed and controversial “Funny Games” (2007). That film also showed ostensibly innocent adversaries entering a family’s home after gaining their trust, and then doing awful things.
Emilie is played to perfection by Sarah Bolger, who has a beautiful, kind face, which only makes the character’s incongruous psychopathy even more unsettling for the viewer. It took me a while to place the actress’ face, until I recognized her as the somewhat feckless protagonist of 2011’s “The Moth Diaries.” I was impressed with her talent then as a hapless good guy, and I think her performance here was phenomenal. She plays the innocent-looking, yet icy antagonist here with subtle, unnerving malice. The rest of the cast is also uniformly quite good. This is true even of the young child actors, but most especially of Joshua Rush.
The movie is briskly paced, but its sparing dialogue still manages to rattle and then shock. It’s a sometimes obscene story of imperiled children that really gets under your skin. Most of its directing is clean and clear. Combined with the unusual score, it gives the story a dreamlike quality.
The movie loses its way just a little at about the 40-minute mark, when its perverse, moody dialogue and strictly psychological horror give way to the familiar elements of a boilerplate thriller. An unnecessary backstory is given for our antagonist, delivered by an overly convenient, standard flashback sequence that feels out of place and that disrupts the pacing. (“Her mind was shattered.”) Then, other plot points also feel just a little by-the-numbers, moving “Emilie” away from true cinematic greatness and toward just being a very good horror flick.
Finally, Bolger’s villain is defanged a little when the script calls for her to lose her calm demeanor after the plucky, oldest child (Rush) defies her, in a well executed but entirely predictable David and Goliath story. And her character’s reliance on a nameless, voiceless and superfluous confederate here also makes her a little less enigmatic.
How much greater would this movie have been if Emilie’s motivations remained a mystery? What if, like “Funny Games” or “The Strangers” (2008), all we knew is that she was an highly intelligent sociopath acting for no discernible reason? What if she were acting entirely alone?
And what if the horror remained strictly psychological, with no actual violence to up the ante until the closing minutes? The most disturbing scenario I can think of is this — what if she were able to psychologically manipulate the children to violently turn against one another, or against their parents upon their return? That could be an ambiguous, darker and far more thematic story than the second half of the film we see here.
Still, this was a damned effective scary movie, and that’s good enough. I recommend it.
One more thing — there actually is a famous, heartwarming French romantic comedy entitled “Amelie” (2001), which I have not seen. I think it would be blackly funny if some sentimental filmgoers wanted to rent that and accidentally picked up “Emilie.”