Published Aug 27, 2015When Anna Muylaert's wholly engaging class system drama, The Second Mother, starts, Val (Regina Casé), the live-in housekeeper for an affluent Brazilian family, is juggling the domestic demands of watching someone else's children while cleaning a sizable home. Her relationship with Barbara (Karine Teles), the family matriarch, is cordial; they exchange pleasantries and small talk while planning a cocktail party. But there's something beneath it all that's amiss.
When Val serves trays of hors d'oeuvres to Barbara's guests, not a single person glances her way or extends a thank you. The only people that acknowledge her are Barbara's teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) and his friends, who respond to her very much as they would a mother figure. While Val is clearly accustomed to this dynamic and remains unaffected by her role as servant, the introduction of her long-estranged daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who comes to stay with her mother temporarily while studying for university admission, shakes things up.
Muylaert's style is observational. The camera often remains static, lingering on the action from a medium distance so it can capture the awkwardness of any given situation. At first, it mostly captures eye lines and formal functionality, but Jéssica's casual demeanour and refusal to submit to guest etiquettes brings about an entirely different sense of unease. When Jéssica allows Barbara to serve her breakfast when Val inadvertently sleeps in, there's a definite sense of quiet tension stemming from Barbara's restrained annoyance and Jéssica's aloof sense of entitlement. Similarly, when Jéssica openly suggests to Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), the family patriarch, that she take their spare guest room rather than sharing a room with her mother, Val's panic and the quiet judgment speak volumes.
This slow building conflict and the wisely observed performances from all involved — Casé's peripheral anxiety and Teles' subtly passive-aggressive demeanour, in particular — ensures that The Second Mother is compelling for its duration. And, early on, the distance that Muylaert allows, ensuring the characters and their actions tell the story, refuses judgment. There's initially a twofold argument that questions Barbara's faux-politeness and gradual devolution into passively imposing limitations (when Jéssica oversteps appropriate boundaries, Barbara asks Val to keep her out of the kitchen or change bedrooms) as well as Jéssica's refusal to listen to her mother or demonstrate basic courtesies.
As things progress, Muylaert's perspective on the subject does start to peer through, however. Carlos — a 50-year-old man who wears an Arcade Fire t-shirt — starts up an inappropriate flirtation with Jéssica and Barbara is eventually portrayed, at least partially, as a tyrannical monster, vilified for expecting to be respected within her own home. They both have their obvious flaws, which seem to comment on the insincerity and entitlement of an upper-class ethos. Similarly, the eventual resolution, a pseudo sense of empowerment for Val, concludes the argument and places judgment firmly on the upper class (even though Val was an employee that was free to leave at any time). In a way, this denigrates the effective preceding character and status drama, imposing an adolescent sense of moral righteousness that, while du rigueur, is somewhat patronizing and solipsistic.
Still, there's no denying Muylaert's ability to capture the essence of conflict here, which is particularly impressive considering that the only outright arguments occur between Jéssica and Val. This is one of the shrewdest presentations of female competition and class/power dynamics in recent memory.