Marco Dutra, Juliana Rojas (directors), Rui Poças (cinematography), Caetano Gotardo (editor)
Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano, Cida Moreira, Miguel Lobo (cast)
Released September 24, 2017 (Fantastic Fest), October 11, 2017 (BFI London Film Festival)
“Lady, beware, quicken your pace…all kinds of creatures hide in the night,” a woman sings as the Good Manners’ protagonist sprints past her into the night. Seeped in the Latin American tradition of magical realism, Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ São Paulo-based film interweaves everyday drama with supernatural and fantastical elements. Good Manners tells the story of Clara Macedo, a nurse who falls in love with her wealthy, mysterious, and very pregnant employer, Ana. Through a series of shocking events, Clara finds herself the mother of Ana’s child. The big catch? The child is a werewolf.
The film feels as if it defies typical storytelling structure, and it can be roughly broken into two parts: Romance and Parenthood, or With Ana and After Ana. Color plays a huge role in denoting these two halves; at the beginning of the film, we see Clara absolutely surrounded by shades of baby blue. Nervous and tight-lipped, Clara arrives at Ana’s apartment and is dwarfed by her surroundings; Ana’s apartment is extravagant and bright, covered floor-to-ceiling in ornate light blue wallpaper, fur rugs, and expensive-looking, blue-tinged knick-knacks. In this sea of opulence, the monochromatically clothed, emotionally withdrawn Clara looks entirely out of place.
We come to associate this bright, airy color with Ana. Ana impetuously buys expensive clothing, dances zumba in yoga pants, and struts around her living room in gem-encrusted cowboy boots. Compared to Clara, Ana is everything she is not: emotionally free, rich, light-skinned, long-haired, and traditionally beautiful. But the cheerful Ana has her own secrets, and the scenes of blue are inter cut with flashes of yellow and red. Ana sleepwalks, and Clara is haunted by Ana’s eyes turned suddenly yellow. Ana’s artificial fireplace burns cherry red, and the camera fixates on it at times, an outward expression of the tension that slowly coils between Clara and Ana.
The growing connection between the two is a standout of the film. Despite Clara’s lack of experience with caring for children, it’s clear Ana sees something in her. At first, it’s just as a caretaker and future nanny, and all the implications of that relationship–that Clara is a sure-handed, dark-skinned Black woman and Ana her light-skinned, wealthy employer–are certainly there. At first that social hierarchy is firmly in place: Ana shops and flits around while Clara silently carries her bags, cooks her meals, and rarely smiles.
Slowly though Clara and Ana are drawn to each other. Ana relies on Clara’s resilience and support, while Clara is drawn to Ana’s beauty. The way the two women slowly fall into each other feels believable and sensitively done, and the directors are uninterested in depicting the relationship with any sort of condemnation or shame. Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano spark with chemistry, and their interactions grow to become passionate and then tender. We see the cinematography play into this as well. There’s a lot of focus on the women’s clasped hands, their forlorn glances, and their gentle kisses that key us into the fact that these women are meant to be together.
The film’s use of discordant music and unsettling lullabies tells us this state of affairs isn’t meant to last. A sudden occurrence changes Clara’s situation drastically, and she ends up having to flee Ana’s apartment for the last time, her newfound love cruelly ended. With Ana’s were-child in her arms, we watch Clara step away from the blue-lit garage into the yellow-lit outside, a stark and significant visual contrast that marks the end of that part of Clara’s life.
What follows is the more openly supernatural half of the film, and yet somehow it ends up being the less interesting part. We meet Clara again years later, wearing a huge smile on her face. Her apartment, so drab before, is suddenly painted light blue. She twirls around the kitchen in a light blue dress, her hair now long and falling in ringlets around face. We see this all for the symbolism it is: Clara never let go of her love, and Ana is an integral part of Clara now.
The second half of the film switches gears from a romance into a darkly fantastical coming-of-age story. It explores Clara’s relationship with Miguel Lobo’s Joel, her sickly-looking son often clothed and framed in green–Ana’s blue mixed with the werewolf-eye yellow. Joel of course knows there’s something different about him, and yet he’s still resentful of his strict sleeping schedule and eating habits. Joel just wants to live a normal life, and go to the Friday dance with the girl he likes. While we get to see Zuaa really stretch in her role as Clara here as she struggles with being a parent to a supernatural entity, the scenes somehow lack the same spark as those that featured in the first half of the film.
In the end Good Manners feels like two different films sewn together, and it feels as if the two halves could’ve been blended more smoothly–and at two hours and fifteen minutes, one wonders how it could’ve been edited down in some way. But the film takes us on a beautiful journey regardless. Aside from the creative use of color, the film intersperses often sorrowful musical numbers, a purposeful choice by the directors as a callback to old fairy tale films like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Dutra and Rojas use that over two hour run time to explore all the ways humans can express love–through color, through music, and through glances and touch–and it makes for a beautiful and memorable experience.
Good Manners is an enchanting meditation on love, loss, and motherhood, and I’m eager to see more from Dutra and Rojas.