Saturday, March 31, 2018

ND/NF ’18: Good Manners

Sleepwalking is something we expect to see in the English country estates of gothic romances, not the stratified urban jungle of São Paulo. However, the somnambulism of Clara’s pregnant new employer certainly seems to hold gothic implications, especially since it only happens during full moons. You’d better know what that means. Exploitation evolves into affection and love turns deadly in Marco Dutra & Juliana Rojas’s Bad Manners (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.

Clara never finished nursing school, so she really isn’t qualified to be a live-in maternity nurse. On the other hand, she is poor and desperate, making cheap and willing to perform menial household chores. That suits disgraced plantation heiress Ana Proença Nogueira to a “T.” Weirdly enough, she also feels reassured by Clara’s taciturn presence. She is an exploiter, but she still stirs up all sorts of protective feelings in the nurse-maid. Soon their ambiguous mutually shared attraction, become less ambiguous. However, Clara still cannot help noticing odd things about her lover-employer, like her insatiable appetite for red meat and her somnambulism when the moon is full.

Buckle up, because Dutra & Rojas take a radical ninety-degree turn at almost precisely the one-hour point. Frankly, it takes a while to get acclimated to the narrative shift. Regardless, it becomes clear Clara will be forced to manage some form of lycanthropy. In a way, this sexually-charged film is the lesbian werewolf film Bradley Gray Rust’s Jack & Diane promised, but failed to deliver.

Dutra and Rojas sparingly indulge in gore, but when they do, they really get their money’s worth. Clearly, they are more concerned with using lycanthropy as means to examine sexual, racial, and class dynamics under extreme stress. Yet, they still take care of the genre business, loading the film up with eerie foreboding. As a result, Manners represents a quantum step up from their previous feature collaboration, the frustrating in-betweener, Hard Labor.

Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano really are fantastic as the nurse-and-patient lovers. Their relationship evolves awfully fast and quite dramatically, but they totally sell it. Young Miguel Lobo is also pretty solid as the seven or eight-year-old bundle of joy in part two. Plus, the werewolf effects and makeup are surprisingly cool and somewhat different from what we have seen before.

This is definitely socially conscious, character-driven art-house horror, but it never looks down on the genre. In fact, it deliberately riffs on the archetypal climax of nearly every classic Universal monster movie. The upshot is this take on werewolves is smart, subversive, and entertaining. Highly recommended, Good Manners screens this Thursday (4/5) at MoMA and Friday (4/6) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2018.