A smart comedy about the bourgeoisie’s discomfort with anything that it can’t recognize as itself, My Worst Nightmare is a joy to watch mostly due to Isabelle Huppert’s impeccable embodiment of the snobbish upper-class bitch. She plays Agathe, a bossy director of an art foundation with a penchant for Balenciaga trench coats and for knowing exactly how to play the Parisian literati’s taste-making game. Since she has a great career, an intellectual husband, a beautiful son, an apartment filled with Sugimotos and Mapplethorpes, and she’s skinny, everybody hates her. At a PTA meeting she meets Patrick (Benoît Poelvoorde), father to her son’s best friend and her most repulsive antithesis. He’s invasive, crass, and lower class, the kind of guy who asks you if he can charge his cellphone when visiting your home before saying hello, and boasts about fucking “fat bitches” to bashful intellectual Parisians. But since she can’t find another construction worker to finish building her new closet (they don’t make servants like they used to), Agathe ends up hiring Patrick to do the job, and he quickly invades her life, career, and general being, crashing her dinner parties, art exhibits, and exposing her marriage as affectionless theater.
The film abides by a particularly French humor, akin to The Dinner Game, and which can quickly go right over American audience’s heads. Here the hilarity creeps up slowly and from every angle, not through the facile immediacy of short-lived laughter. The humor is in the nuance of Huppert’s mesmerizing face as she goes from disgust to fascination, from glee to desperation, with the kind of subtlety normally only possible in dramas. The wit and comicality of the film arise from Huppert’s ability to evoke instead of reveal. Her restraint is so masterful sometimes the script can’t keep up. We can feel, though we never quite see, the labor and discipline required in maintaining her froideur; her husband refers to her as “Cruella disguised in Mary Poppins” when she is at her sweetest, and their marriage as being penguins in Antarctica. Agathe’s strategic sterility and emotional distance are what the bourgeois need to forget about how messy being human actually is, a messiness that’s so quickly exposed through the presence of any foreign object that doesn’t belong to her world, here represented by Patrick. The film has several delicious scenes in which we watch the clash between classes explode before our eyes, as when Patrick downs an expensive glass of wine in one chug before an incredulous audience of intellectual snobs, right after asking a prominent novelist the only question he really wants to ask about the writer’s new book: “Does he bone her in the end?”
Although some of the film’s characters are stereotypical, Huppert brings the kind of multi-layered gravitas to the figure of the “classy bitch” that makes Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly look as embarrassingly one-dimensional as Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth. Huppert doesn’t just wear Agathe’s flawless wardrobe, she incorporates it. The accouterments never seem like put-ons, or Patricia Field-mediated product placement. She gives them life, even tentacles. Hers is not a reductive bitch whose good heart we find in the end. Hers is a bitch whose heart is always about to pop out of her mouth, a wounded, chewed-up heart she elegantly swallows back like a bothersome piece of duck confit that just refuses to go down your throat.