Friday, November 09, 2018

Mystery and Manners

Good Manners (2017)

Good Manners (2017, directed by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra) is the best werewolf movie anyone has made in the last 37 years. This is, admittedly, a low bar to clear, given the preponderance of Howling sequels that form the backbone of werewolf cinema during that time frame, but it's better than the Ginger Snaps movies, too, and those are pretty good. It might even be better than those two pillars of werewolf cinema from 1981, The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, but I won't swear to that. Like Ginger Snaps, this is a distaff horror movie that finds some of its horror in the biology of women, and some more horror in the social roles women often occupy, salted with problems of class and race.

The story in Good Manners follows Clara, an inexperienced nurse with serious money troubles, and Ana, the woman who hires her as the prospective nanny for her unborn child. The job mostly entails being a housekeeper and companion to Ana until she gives birth, but it evolves into more than that as the two women find themselves attracted to each other. They become lovers. Ana's pregnancy has complications, though. Once every month, she has cravings for raw meat and finds herself sleepwalking. These incidents coincide with the full moon. Her obstetrician tells her that it's normal, even if it is unusual, but Clara isn't sure. Meanwhile, Ana seems to have money problems of her own, and eventually, she pries the diamonds from a pair of ultra-high end boots in order to keep her household running. One night, she tells Clara that she's been exiled from her family because the father of her child was someone other than her then-fiancee, and that the father vanished after encountering some mysterious beast when they were out on the date where her child was conceived. Eventually, Ana's labor arrives on yet another full moon and the true nature of her son is revealed...

Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano in Good Manners (2017)

Good Manners solves one of the problems that plagues most monster movies. With most monster movies, the stuff with the human characters functions as filler between set-pieces. Usually, scenes of monster mayhem are to the horror movie what musical numbers are to musicals. What's in between doesn't matter. Not so in Good Manners. This film pays close attention to Clara and Ana's relationship, and the film and the audience become deeply invested in them both. This is helped by superior performances by Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano as Clara and Ana, respectively. They're both much better than horror movies usually get from actors and the filmmakers take full advantage, particularly once the time comes for them to murder their darlings. By the time this film's werewolf shows up on camera, the audience is already so deeply involved with the human characters that the macabre turn of events that splits the film in two is almost an intrusion. Almost. This turn of events is devastating out of proportion to its ghastliness precisely because the film has been so keen on its characters rather than just throwing them into the meat grinder of genre. This film thrusts a defiant middle finger at genre conventions, even as it wields them like a weapon. As if to salt the wound, the film demarcates the break between its first and second phases (as it were) with a mournful musical number sung by a homeless woman Clara passes when she flees from Ana's apartment block.

The first half of Good Manners is predicated on the horrors of pregnancy and childbirth. The way this conflates a lycanthropic craving for meat with pregnancy cravings is a wry enough satire, but the actual details of Ana's delivery are devoid of irony. This is a film that one-ups the "birth" scenes in films like Humanoids from the Deep and The Brood by depicting the trauma to the child as well. Ana's son, Joel, is being strangled by the umbilicus, which puts some ambiguity into the violence the film ascribes to his birth.

The second half of the film details a different kind of feminine horror: motherhood, particularly the mothering of a child with, shall we say, special needs. Clara thinks about leaving Joel to die by the river, but instead raises him as her own. She knows full well what he is and she's worked out practical solutions to Joel's problems: she feeds him only vegetables, she has a special "small bedroom" that's a steel vault for full moons. She's a helicopter parent, who knows full well that her child is a threat to others but for her intervention. There's obvious love here, but Joel himself resists. He doesn't understand the limitations Clara puts on him, and when Clara's landlady feeds meat, it awakens a surly disobedience in him. As with the relationship between Clara and Ana in the first half of the film, the relationship between Clara and Joel is carefully observed, and that wry satire that was present in the first half of the film returns. The difficulty with kids and vegetables, for instance, is given a good ribbing in this film, but like everything else in the film, it serves a purpose. The filmmakers seed the film's disastrous ending with deft strokes. This is a film that rarely feels like it's plotted, per se, so much as it feels like a film that flows naturally from the actions of its characters, even its child characters.

Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano in Good Manners (2017)

Good Manners is set in Sao Paulo, a city noted for its concrete housing blocks. It's a modernist city, one where an old-world horror like a werewolf is like a tarantula crawling on the carapace of a sports car. The filmmakers are aware of this contradiction. They've chosen to film the city in a way that turns it into a make-believe space, mostly through a series of gorgeous matte paintings rather than photographic footage. It creates a "look" to the film that's both a fantasy land and hyper-real and hyper-modern at the same time. It's a striking visual strategy. The film's interior spaces are as thoroughly designed, as well, particularly Ana's apartment, a space that wouldn't be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. The film's lone flashback is a painted animated sequence detailing Ana's encounter with Joel's father that's a hybrid of the film's decorative instinct and its fairy tale visual style.

I won't reveal the ending of the film, because it's best to discover it on one's own, but I will say this: the second half of the film subverts the audience's expectations of what constitutes a monster. The film's final image is a defiant stand against the horror genre's long tradition of angry villagers. Given the political disaster in Brazil at this exact moment, Good Manners is both prescient and damning.

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