The gap separating the haves from the have-nots has long provided a regular field of study for South American filmmakers: standing on the doorstep of the United States probably does that to a national cinema. If Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother proves less confrontational than City of God, Neighbouring Sounds or the gleefully spiky Chilean satire The Maid, it’s nevertheless telling that a Brazilian filmmaker can cast one of her country’s biggest stars as a housekeeper and not have it seem as incongruous as Jennifer Lopez playing a put-upon chargirl in Maid in Manhattan.
For much of the first act of Muylaert’s film, we’re simply pottering around a well-appointed Sao Paulo residence, getting the lay of the land. Val (Regina Case, probably still best known over here for 2001’s Me, You, Them) is introduced giving her employers’ young son swimming lessons in the family’s outdoor pool, and then – a decade on – schooling this now-teenage boy in the myriad vagaries of the opposite sex.
Here is a woman who absolutely knows – and is apparently extremely comfortable with – her circumscribed place in the world: though she enjoys the run of the manor during daylight hours, by night – after fashion bigshot Dona Barbara (Karine Teles) has returned from the office – Val is confined to making meals in the kitchen or inhabiting the cramped backroom she shares with a noisy washer-dryer.
Muylaert makes a subtle joke out of the fact Barbara is hardly some horsewhip-brandishing tyrant. She is, rather, just like many other employers of domestic labour: a woman with a lot on, elevated expectations of her offspring, and (not unrelated) a certain public image to maintain – such that we’ll see her instruct Val to put the plastic coffeepot the maid bought for Barbara’s birthday away during that night’s party in order to use a more artful Swedish one in its place.
Still, a faultline opens up under this household, the day that Val’s ambitious, architecture-student daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila) comes to stay for the summer. Through the shrugging intervention of Dona Barbara’s doctor hubby Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), she’s installed in a swanky guest room, rather than the mattress Barbara had assigned for her on the floor of her mother’s quarters, and she’s considering dipping a toe in that pool, too…
Though there’s absolutely nothing show-offy about Muylaert’s direction – much of the legwork is taken up by a fine script and excellent performances – it becomes clear from a very early stage that she knows how to use her widescreen frame to punch up what is essentially a matter of space and encroachment. She creates funny ballets around doors and corridors, and a mini-maelstrom over Jessica’s tendency to raid the fridge for snacks; choice camera positioning emphasises the first mother’s absence, and the closeness of the second to the first one’s offspring.
On a purely human level, you can’t help but find yourself drawn in by Case’s matronly presence: Val seems like someone who would not only be gossipy good fun, but who would also – in times of crisis – give tremendous cuddle. Yet Muylaert finds pockets of credibly idiosyncratic, fractious life everywhere she looks: Carlos, seen as a barely present, henpecked drip, gradually emerges as a far shiftier, if no less ineffectual presence, while Jessica’s introduction allows the film to play the expectations of three generations of women off against one another – and demonstrates the power of the young to inspire their elders.
We barely leave the house, and we hardly need to: Muylaert, here announcing herself as a genuine discovery, understands that sometimes all the comedy and drama a filmmaker needs is right there under one roof. After a victory lap around the festival circuit, her film arrives on UK screens as the very best kind of crowdpleaser: full of empathy, lightly worn filmmaking nous, and – above all else – a quiet, reflective wisdom as to the ways in which the world now divides up.
(MovieMail, September 2015)
The Second Mother is available to stream from today via MUBI.