Juliette Garcias, Be Good, 2009, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Ève (Anaïs Demoustier) and Jean (Bruno Todeschini).

A HIGHLIGHT of the year’s “Film Comment Selects” series, Juliette Garcias’s first directorial feature, Be Good, is a tense thriller that gradually dispels suspicions of its affinities with the lovesick-teenager and demonic-babysitter genres to reveal its more unsettling subject as a study of the psychological effects of early sexual violation. Recalling vintage Chabrol in setting and tone, Garcias’s serenely composed images are both backdrop and foil to the quietly unnerving interactions between a disturbed young woman and the inhabitants of a provincial French village. It’s a sign of the film’s restrained approach to its subject that its most sensuous image is that of a delicate but insistent female hand plunging into a pail of live snails, probing and caressing the dark wet matter with erotic pleasure as the creatures slither into and out of their shells. The hand belongs to Nathalie, whose preference to be called Ève is the first sign of her displaced persona. As played by Anaïs Demoustier, her angelic prettiness, teary eyes, and desperately winning smile conceal a barely suppressed pathology. Everything about “Ève” and what she does denotes “stalker,” if not quite in the same league as the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction (1987), scary enough to make us cringe when an infant is placed in her care. We wonder why so young and pretty a creature has taken a job delivering bread to the locals until we see her spying on a married couple and learn that she had a relationship with the husband, Jean (Bruno Todeschini). Is Ève seeking revenge for having been seduced and abandoned by an older man? The more quietly she behaves, the creepier the prospects. We soon realize that Ève is after bigger game, and the closer she gets to her goal the more frightening—and the more pitiable—she becomes.

In one flashback, we see a low-angle shot of two pairs of hands playing piano, an older man’s and those of a very young girl. When the duet ends, the figures move offscreen. While the camera remains on the piano, we hear the man’s voice engaged in a very different lesson as he teaches his pupil how to gratify him sexually. Not until Ève confronts Jean directly, however, do we learn not only that he abused her as a child but that he is her father. Helpless against her fathomless intentions, Jean plays dumb even when Ève volunteers to babysit for him and his wife, Hélène (Nade Dieu), and decides to stay overnight. In the startling scene that ensues, Ève reenacts her childhood seduction, this time assuming the role of seducer. That it occurs in the parental bedroom in the presence of another oblivious mother suggests less the closing of a narrative circle than the irreparable corruption of Ève’s character. Afterward, before she leaves, she passes Hélène clinging to her baby as if to protect it and herself from the presence of evil. But if the long, silent stare between them implies that Ève is the destroyer of this false domestic paradise, the motherly protection Hélène embodies before she closes the door in Ève’s face is the very image of the paradise from which Ève herself was torn as a child. It is to Garcias’s credit that she allows these troubling, even contradictory connotations to resonate over the film’s final moments, including the final inscrutable image of Ève standing in the midst of a river facing the viewer.

Demoustier is a persuasive vessel of deranged innocence, recalling the young Isabelle Huppert in demeanor, looks (freckles and all), and the smile that hides a multitude of enigmatic feelings. It is because of these qualities that her scenes with the couple’s baby carry not only diabolical potential but hints of herself as a child before betrayal and corruption. Nothing is more heartrending and horrific than when she quietly asks her father whether little Ana, his new child, will also grow up to be destroyed as she was. In her directorial debut, Garcias demonstrates control and subtlety, sustaining a sense of muted horror that disturbs even as it sustains the surface of everyday reality. She even manages to evoke the biblical paradigm: Ève might well conjure the first woman driven from Paradise, while the serpent responsible for her fall survives to continue his devilry within the safe haven of the family nest.

Tony Pipolo

Juliette Garcias’s Be Good plays February 21, 23, and 28 as part of the “Film Comment Selects” series at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details, click here.