Good Manners

Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), the Brazilian feature Good Manners (which plays this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center) begins as one type of movie before transforming into something very different. Seeing the film without any foreknowledge of what will happen is to experience one of the greatest jolts in recent cinema, so if you want to get the most out of the movie’s narrative turns, I encourage you to avoid reading any reviews (including this one) before watching it. Suffice it to say that the highly original story is just one of the achievements of Good Manners.. The film is one of the most distinctive looking I’ve seen in some time, with strikingly colorful costumes (by Kiki Orona), production design (by Fernando Zuccolotto), and cinematography (by the great Rui Poças, whose credits include Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, Lucrecia Martel‘s Zama, and numerous works by João Pedro Rodrigues). In fact Good Manners often evokes the animated Disney features of the 1940s in its bold and fanciful use of color; even before writer-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra steer the film in an outlandish direction, it feels like a modern-day fairy tale.

The visual aesthetic creates an interesting frisson with the content of the early sequences, which falls squarely in the realm of naturalistic drama. Good Manners begins when Clara (Isabél Zuaa)—a working-class black woman from the outskirts of São Paolo—arrives in the city center to interview for a nannying job with a rich white woman named Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who’s currently in the third trimester of her pregnancy. Wide-eyed and quiet, Clara suggests a frightened animal as she inspects Ana’s high-rise apartment; one can tell instantly that she feels out of place amid luxury. Her interview with Ana goes poorly, as Clara admits she never finished nursing school and has never held down a paying job for very long. Still, Ana sees good in the interviewee, who explains that she took care of her grandmother for seven years before she died. After Clara helps Ana overcome intense labor pains, the rich woman hires her on the spot, inviting her to move in and help around the apartment until the baby is born.

Rojas and Dutra seem to be setting the stage for a film of gentle social observation comparable to Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother (2015), which used the relationship between a domestic servant and her employer to consider class-bound tensions in contemporary Brazil. Based on the opening scenes, you might expect Good Manners to chart the growing camaraderie between Ana and Clara, with the latter impressing the former with her kind nature and inspiring her boss to become more sympathetic to the working class. These things do happen, yet the directors hint that they have something else up their sleeves with their subtly fantastical imagery. Consider a beautiful shot that occurs when Clara walks back to her home after her interview with Ana. São Paolo’s downtown skyline looms behind Clara, lit up in unnatural hues of purple and pink—the world of the rich seems like an enchanted castle, and the delicate musical score, driven by flute and harp, adds to the fairy-tale vibe.

As the story proceeds, the filmmakers draw inspiration from gothic novels as well as fairy tales. Clara quickly intuits that her employer is hiding some dark secret: she finds a loaded revolver while cleaning Ana’s bedroom, and she hears strange noises coming from that room at night. When the two women go to the mall one afternoon, Ana encounters an old friend from her hometown (apparently she moved to São Paolo only recently), but the friend acts as though Ana doesn’t exist. Ana also tells Clara she’s estranged from her family and her former fiance, though she remains coy as to why. Rojas and Dutra set a slowish pace, allowing the sense of mystery around Ana to fester (and encouraging viewers to immerse themselves in the gorgeous imagery); one shares in Clara’s curiosity just like one bonds with Jane Eyre or the unnamed heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Then things get odd. About a half hour into Good Manners, Clara returns to the high-rise one evening to find Ana sleepwalking around the apartment. The rich woman approaches her servant, sniffs her like an animal, kisses her on the mouth, then bites her lip so hard she bleeds. The next night, Ana wakes from a nightmare and calls Clara into her room; the two become intimate and, acting on their growing mutual fascination, end up making love. When the sex scene ends, Rojas and Dutra bring up the harp-and-flute music on the soundtrack, as if to say that the influence of fairy tales has taken over the film completely. It’s a liberating moment. Ana and Clara’s lovemaking shatters barriers of class, race, and heteronormativity in one fell swoop—it feels as though they’ve granted the movie permission to become anything. Who knows what Ana’s secret could be now?

When we speak of “the magic of the movies,” I don’t think we’re talking about cinematic fantasy so much as the sense of limitless possibility that movies can engender. After all, people fall in love all the time, but rarely do they feel fated to fall in love the way characters do in movie romances. Similarly, people are capable of changing the world they inhabit, but rarely does social change occur as suddenly and as sweepingly as it does in fiction films. By showing how people and societies can transform, movies encourage viewers to imagine how they can foster such transformations themselves, and this is one key to cinema’s enduring appeal. Rojas and Dutra not only understand this truth of the medium—they seem positively drunk on it. The twists of Good Manners are indeed surprising, but more importantly they speak to the inherent potential of all movies, fantasies and otherwise. It’s worth noting that the film doesn’t change its shape until after one of the characters changes hers. As inspired as the narrative form may be, it’s pointedly in the service of theme.

Rojas and Dutra may relish the fact that anything is possible in movies, but they also acknowledge the limitations of real life. Without giving anything away, let me say that reality comes crashing in at the end of Good Manners, and that its intrusion is emotionally devastating. One reason the ending makes such an impact is that, unlike every preceding narrative development in the film, it feels inevitable. After more than two hours of opening up possibilities, the filmmakers close them off, effectively shutting the door on one of the most imaginative environments the cinema has introduced. I was upset to have to leave it.   v