Thursday 23 July 2020

Keeping up appearances: "The Good Girls"

The main business of Alejandra Márquez Abella's toothy satire The Good Girls is the fall of an empire, though it takes time to get round to it. Initially, we're given a grand tour of Mexican high society as it was in 1982: the dinner parties, the tennis clubs, the swimming pools, the walk-in closets, the ensuite bathrooms with matching his-and-hers sinks. Here is at once the good life and an expensively self-sealed, myopic universe, as reflected in a number of early shots that drift entirely out of focus, either in homage to Lucrecia Martel or to suggest eyeballs glazing over, as they might faced with such conspicuous decadence. But wait: soon we hear passing talk of moth infestations, the first indication these marbled walls may be at risk of crumbling to dust. The water supply goes out. Credit cards are turned down. Neighbours are observed fleeing the area like rats. Only with President López Portillo's announcement of an imminent currency devaluation - an announcement the characters miss, so busy are they networking, turning past the headlines to get to the society pages or drooling over Julio Iglesias - does Márquez Abella's interest in this world and these people become entirely clear. This is what happens when an economy gets trashed, obliging the rich either to cling tooth-and-nail to whatever's left in reserve, or stuff suitcases full of worthless paper, get the hell out of Dodge, and set up shop somewhere that still has an economy to plunder. These are the last days of (one ultra-localised form of) capitalism; any film describing that assumes the look of a warning from history.

Márquez Abella approaches this crisis from an unusual, slightly oblique angle: her focus is on those ladies who lunch, suddenly discovering that lunch costs a lot more than it used to, or that the restaurant has been shuttered altogether. It's the wryest of directorial jokes that they should appear so interchangeable. Employing the same stylists, wearing the same labels, forever holding up a mirror to each other's limited ambitions, these are women who've become accustomed to a certain way of living, conservatives to their very core. Márquez Abella observes them as an entomologist might insects about to undergo irreversible colony collapse. She grants Sofia (Ilse Salas) a timid sort of inner voice, via sporadic narration that sets out how she landed here, and what little now passes through her head. Yet in the main, these women aren't all that more expressive than the mannequins in the high-end boutiques they frequent. They, too, have been asked to sit or stand in a certain manner, to show off a nice dress from time to time, to help drum up business - they're good girls, all right. What Márquez Abella shows us is that these trophy wives, set in the front windows of ideal homes, are in their own way prisoners of a particular system. At some point while the movie is wheeling out the guillotine, we might even begin to feel a pang of sympathy for them. The hoi polloi have long been reliant upon the mercy of the mob.

The Good Girls is stealthy like that. It took me a while to get into it - almost as long as it would for me to enter any country club unannounced - and to get past some of its copious eccentricities, like the soundtrack made up of handclaps and acapella yelps. (There may be a point being made about how such sealed-off worlds give rise to the weirdest peccadillos and fetishes.) But once again it's plain to see that South American cinema has got a better handle on dramatising societal imbalance than any other cinema in the world. We could curate a mini-season of these films now, and admire the narrative variations set so skilfully atop the same recurring themes: Martel's The Headless Woman, Sebastián Silva's The Maid, the Brazilian parable The Second Mother, last year's sleeper hit The Chambermaid. Is it because the disconnect between the rich and the poor is so much more evident on that continent - visible on every street corner, in every well-staffed household - than it is anywhere else? (Is it still possible to be a moderate in Mexico, or a centrist in Central America?) Márquez Abella's film shouldn't work: it sets us down among some of the dullest characters, wittering on about topics that won't mean a damn thing to you and I. Yet there's something fascinating - maybe even a little chilling - about their obliviousness: the movie's a 93-minute extension of those cutaways in disaster movies to doomed souls who don't realise how rapidly the asteroid or tsunami is coming up behind them. 

The historical context Márquez Abella sets in place means the drama here has to come in smaller, incremental, more realistic waves, but waves there are: a round of job losses, a bounced cheque, a stress rash behind an ear, a house getting messier by the frame, a child asking a parent the meaning of the word "repossess". (If you were in that minority who felt Alfonso Cuarón's beatified Roma could only have benefitted from a touch more of its director's Children of Men, this may well be the movie for you.) For some, such as Sofia, it's not that they can't sense the waves getting bigger, but that they choose not to notice it; instead, they bury their heads in another hot towel, plant their tootsies squarely in the footspa, and make plans for the next soiree. The miracle of the film - there's really no other word for it - is that the mounting dependency and vulnerability Márquez Abella alights upon by observing her good girls at such close quarters eventually makes them human, brings the mannequins to life. There's one wicked late twist - a vicious spasm in a chi-chi restaurant, reminding us the film has considerable bite to go with its bark - but towards the end, characters who initially appeared impossibly remote to us begin to seem eerily recognisable, vaguely familiar even. Could it happen here? Could it happen to you? To answer with one of the UK government's increasingly prophylactic PR slogans: get ready for Brexit.

The Good Girls is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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