Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf Mother?: Dutra & Rojas Spin Magical Spell with Subversive Class Commentary Horror
As its title would indicate, social etiquette and desiring acceptability are at the forefront of Good Manners, the phenomenal second feature of Brazilian directing duo Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas (which took home a Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival). However, it should immediately be noted, in ways one can’t begin to predict. Re-teaming after their 2011 debut Hard Labor, their latest is a heady reconfiguration of genre flavors used as the framework to explore class, race, and sexuality in modern-day Brazil.
A synopsis would dilute its potency by describing it as a lesbian werewolf movie with nostalgic nods to the dark side of Disney’s heyday and classic movie monsters from the Hollywood studio era—but its subtexts reach much greater depths. When a black nurse from Sao Paulo seeks work as a babysitter, she becomes embroiled in a strange odyssey involving her wealthy, white employer in ways she could never have imagined. And just as it settles into an uncomfortable rhythm of supernaturally tinged class disparity, Dutra and Rojas morph into monster movie mode reflecting the profitless sacrifice of motherhood, servitude, and the complex navigations of pariahdom.
Clara (Isabél Zuaa) is an out-of-work nurse desperate for work on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. Inquiring on an ad for live-in nanny, she’s nearly turned away from an interview with the wealthy, pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano). The two women connect, however tenuously, and Clara is hired despite her lack of pre-requisites, which makes her all the more willing to concede to her new employer’s noted liberties. The opportunity allows her to stave off eviction and pay the rent she owes her fussy landlord (Cida Moreira of Caetano Gotardo’s The Moving Creatures, in pitch-perfect O-Lan Jones mode). Quickly assuming the responsibility of fulfilling all of Ana’s needs, master and servant explore the sexual tension they share, despite Clara noting her employer’s troubling carnivorous tendencies every full moon. As the baby in Ana’s stomach grows, she divulges her fall from grace thanks to the unplanned pregnancy, which was the result of a one-night stand with a priest which ended…bizarrely. But when the baby claws its way out of Ana’s stomach, Clara decides to flee the scene with the whimpering infant. As little Joel (the perfectly named Miguel Lobo) grows into a young boy, his monthly transformations become more difficult to control. Yet Clara recognizes he is hardly an abomination and merely acting on tendencies dictated by his nature.
At the center of Good Manners is a particularly effective performance from Isabél Zuaa (who appeared in Marcelo Gomes’ Joaquim this year, again as a character whose tribulations are defined by her skin color). As Clara, she’s sublimely dispirited, a melancholic heartbeat of martyrdom in a film predicated on the festering human tendencies roiling beneath the surface of acceptable social behaviors. Her introduction to Estiano’s Ana is particularly loaded—while the potential employer is obviously deterred by Clara’s lack of qualifications, she’s easier to manipulate than an agency groomed colleague demanding a higher salary than what Ana was offering. Clara’s skin color is also a rather lucrative distinction for Ana, who immediately shoehorns Clara into the role of a maid, the woman who must eternally tag along, hold her bags, and bear witness to her diminished social distinction. We soon learn of the escapade which found Ana pregnant and estranged from her wealthy family (who don’t seem to be paying her credit card bills).
Shunned at the mall after one particularly uneventful day of shopping, Ana finally opens up about her past (told with the use of vibrantly exaggerated paintings). Engaged to be married, a chance sexual rendezvous with a priest one night found her passed out in a car, waking up alone with a savage wolf glaring at her from outside. Of course, we’re already keen to the idea of Ana’s predicament thanks to her increasingly sexual relationship with Clara (who may be as attracted to her employer as she is to her social status), and an uncomfortable late night rendezvous where Ana is found foraging in the fridge, her eyes an eerie yellow, and who attempts to chew on her employee a little bit. Later, Clara will follow Ana during a somnambulistic episode, where the women wander into a chilly, off-white subway, where a poor kitty cat meets a gruesome end in a sequence which seems to be channeling Zulawski’s Possession (1981).
The other blazing star of Good Manners is DP Rui Poças, most recently responsible for Lucrecia Martel’s Zama and Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist. While the daytime sequences in Ana’s apartment are drenched with the sterile energy of a telenovela, the nighttime moments are another world entirely. The yellowed orb of the moon lights dramatic, yet highly artificial backdrops (Zuaa trudging through the rain to her old apartment against the bruised sky and the jaundiced streetlights is one of many beautifully moody shots), and the tone of Good Manners seems to be inspired by those classic Val Lewton horror flicks from the 1940s, particularly something like The Leopard Man (1943) or Cat People (1942).
The film’s most gruesome set piece, a violent birthing sequence which is followed by a breastfeeding bonding session (which outdoes the mammary upsets of Paul Solet’s Grace (2009), features some spectacularly special effects with the werewolf baby. As Dutra and Rojas segue into the film’s pronouncedly different second chapter (a running time which will give some impatient viewers cause for complaint), they also lean more into more outlandish cinematic language, including the use of impromptu musical asides. Skipping ahead several years to see Clara has assumed parenthood of the preadolescent Joel and working comfortably in a pharmacy (plus a whole new hairdo), the troubled duo has found a way to overcompensate for the boy’s monthly nocturnal habits. But identity crisis, of course, strikes the young boy. As young girls at school court temptation to attend social functions and Joel begins to question why he doesn’t ‘look’ like Clara, some rudimentary investigating leads him to discover she’s not his real mother.
Wishing to find his father, he, tracks Clara’s history to a Sao Paulo shopping mall. Interestingly, Dutra and Rojas stage their climax in this empty womb of consumer spectacle. In a final transformation, which recalls the Piccadilly Circus showdown of An American Werewolf in London (1981), the closest Joel is allowed to come to the origins of his patrilineage is an establishment which houses a conglomeration of material objects indicating privilege and prestige. As locals band together like outraged villagers echoing the final flight of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), the fate of adoptive mother and son, black woman and lycan, congeals perfectly into an eternally satisfying final moment of rebellion, retaliation, and survival.
Reviewed on November 11th at the 2017 AFI Film Festival – Midnight Program. 135 Mins.