Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. His latest feature, The Misandrists, will be released in 2017.
Warning: major spoilers ahead.
The “maid movie” has emerged recently as a kind of mini-genre, starting perhaps in 2001 with the Brazilian film Domésticas (Maids), directed by Fernando Meirelles and Nando Olival, and continuing through Chilean director Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (2009), the Singaporean film Ilo Ilo (2013), directed by Anthony Chen, last year’s British film The Duke of Burgundy, directed by Peter Strickland, and now The Second Mother, a new Brazilian film written and directed by Anna Muylaert. (The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth might have a provisional membership in the genre, save that the girl brought into the family is a security guard, not a maid. However, many of the same sexual and psychological dynamics come into play.) There’s something inherent in the idea of the domestic servant that raises all sorts of interesting and complex issues involving class, race, and permutations of domination and submission, often accompanied by uncomfortable or disturbing sexual tensions, ranging anywhere from literal bondage to Oedipal anxieties. When the maid is inserted into the Freudian equation of “family romance” – the incestuously sexual desires generally repressed or sublimated within the nuclear family – all hell can, and usually does, break loose.
Of course, the master/servant dynamic has been a staple of cinema from its inception. In Gregory La Cava’s 1936 My Man Godfrey, wealthy Carole Lombard takes a homeless man (William Powell) into her house as a butler, and soon falls in love with him. Domestic servants in classical Hollywood rarely gain such advantage, but they are often wry and sarcastic commentators on the pompous and decadent behavior of the bourgeoisie, or otherwise acting as confidants, foils, collaborators or enablers. The black maid became a stock character in Hollywood, most notably the strong and nurturing Mammy figures such as house slave Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind (1939) or employed maid Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding (1952), domestics who practically raise the children of their privileged white masters. In 1963, Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter blew the roof off the genre with The Servant, a harrowing, psychosexually twisted account of a working-class manservant (Dirk Bogarde) morally corrupting, then turning the tables on, his upper-class master (James Fox). Christopher Miles’ film adaptation of Genet’s The Maids (1975) further upped the ante of deviance with its kinky performative acting out of the mistress and servant roles by two French maids (Glenda Jackson and Susannah York) who take their role-playing games to deadly extremes. (Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is a lesbian update on the same themes.) The nanny/governess film is a related genre, often involving the intervention of a young, independent woman with repressed desires into a family with an absent mother and/or distant father, taken to its perverse, sexually pathological extreme, for example, in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961). The sexual seduction of the maid by an interloper in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), or the domination of the personal assistant in Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), end up in a scenario of transcendence or liberation for the submissive servant.
With antecedents like these, The Second Mother has a lot to live up to, and although it’s much more straightforward and less perverse than many of the films of the genre, it still has a contribution to make in its ruminations on class and family romance. Val (played by the wonderful Regina Casé), a hard-working nanny/maid from one of the northern states of Brazil, has been living with a wealthy family in São Paulo for the past 13 years, earning money to support her daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), whom she has left in care of her grandmother. In the meantime she has raised handsome Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the son of her employers, practically as her own. Her relationship with Fabinho is almost uncomfortably intimate, with the boy, now in his late teens, sometimes sleeping in bed with her to be comforted in her tiny room, the symbolic womb. When Jessica comes to São Paulo to study for her college entrance exams, she temporarily moves in with the family, disrupting the stark equilibrium of the master-servant relationship.
Jessica, who is brash and modern-thinking, has no time for the inequities and hierarchies of class division, so she immediately convinces Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), the father of family, to allow her to occupy the well-appointed guest bedroom, rather than share her mother’s dingy little room. Both Fabinho and his father develop a rivalry for the affections of Jessica, who has little interest in either of them. Inevitably, Dona Barbara (Karine Teles), the somewhat imperious and vain mother of Fabinho (she works in the fashion industry), begins to resent Jessica’s intrusion into the house on equal footing, and becomes jealous of her husband’s attentions to her.
This simple story could be a recipe for a whole host of unsavory, or even depraved, psychosexual or absurdist scenarios, but writer-director Anna Muylaert opts to present the raising of Val’s consciousness by her rational and intelligent daughter in a more subtle and realistic manner, each small act of liberation becoming all the more significant by virtue of its modesty. In one memorable scene, Dr. Carlos – a painter manqué going through a midlife crises and illness – invites Jessica to each lunch with him at the family table while his wife is away at work. Val finds herself in the awkward position of having to serve her daughter along with her employer, which Casé performs with great comic timing and aplomb. While the camera stays with Val and another maid in the kitchen, the harried servants negotiate the delicate situation, Val entering and exiting the dining room through a swinging door, offering only glimpses of what’s going on inside. Here, as elsewhere, frames-within-frames are used to convey the boxes of class division that everyone finds themselves in, the flat, objective camera angles allowing the action to unfold without much overt judgment.
In another central scene, Jessica is reluctantly drawn into a romp in the swimming pool with Fabinho and one of his friends, while Dr. Carlos watches enviously from the balcony above. Both Val and Dona Barbara are incensed by this breach of protocol, resulting in the Dona later declaring she saw a rat in the pool and having it drained. The swimming pool, here as in Dogtooth and many other films, is not only a status symbol of wealth and luxury, but also a nexus of sexual possibility, a place where inhibitions can be released and the sexual repression inherent in the nuclear family challenged, a pleasure centre that, significantly, Val has never entered. Val’s ultimate victory over her own internalized subservience and exploitation by the bourgeois family is beautifully realized by a simple scene in which Val, after discovering that Jessica has passed her college entrance exams with flying colors (while poor Fabinho, who hasn’t studied, flunks), finally wades into the prohibited, now half-filled pool. She speaks excitedly on her phone about her daughter’s achievement while splashing the water with quiet abandon, finally able to imagine a more independent and fulfilling life.
The Second Mother ends in a resolution that is hopeful, if not entirely realistic. Val has discovered a photograph of a mixed-race baby amongst her daughter’s belongings, and she eventually confronts her about it. Jessica has had her own child out of wedlock, at about the same age that Val gave birth to her, whom she has left in the care of her grandmother back in the north. With Jessica now entering college, Val quits her job, despite the offer of a raise in pay, and finds an apartment of her own with her daughter; she arranges for her grandchild to come live with them, the family reunited and independent. The ending is upbeat, romantic in its own way, but the prospect of Val finding new employment and putting a daughter who is a single mother through college is a daunting one. Freed from the yoke of servitude, we’re rooting for Val to make it, but happy endings always leave the sinking feeling that all the loose ends may have been tied up a little too conveniently.