“Good Madam” review: a clever and culturally revealing South African horror

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“It’s not that mum doesn’t like this house – this house doesn’t like mum,” Tsidi tells her young daughter Winnie of the spacious and comfortable Cape Town pad in which they recently made their home. Tsidi knows the place well. As far back as she can remember, this is her mother Mavis ‘home, which doesn’t mean it’s Mavis’ home: a live-in maid, she has dutifully maintained the place for decades for her. affluent white woman. , living and aging and even raising children – her own and others – within walls that both contain her and reject her eternally. The socially ingrained politics of South African servant-master culture is ultimately what haunts the house in Jenna Cato Bass’s crisp and spooky bedroom room “Good Madam.”

A calm, curvy horror flick, Bass’s fourth and most accomplished feature film might flirt with the supernatural, but finds terror in abundance in social dynamics that for many South Africans are perfectly ordinary. (This is, after all, the land of South Africa’s most popular daily comic book “Madam & Eve,” though there aren’t any benign laughs here.)

With “Good Madam” surely attracting international interest after earning an honorable mention in the Toronto Platform competition, it’s easy to imagine that critics and marketers alike looking for comparisons to Jordan Peele to describe his multi-nuance evocation of conflicts in black and white. But Bass’s film is his own baffling creation: combining familiar genre tropes with a particular national malaise, he strikes a subtle balance between universal resonance and cultural specificity. Building on his equally fascinating but less disciplined neo-Western “Flatland”, “Good Madam” firmly established Bass as a standard-bearer of new South African cinema.

A disconcerting and amplified sound design immediately sets the viewer spellbound in an opening montage of household chore: pans, rusty drains, and knuckles stretched around a scrub brush, all in a tight, greasy close-up. These are daily chores for Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), who is getting a bit old and weary of the routine, if not as old and weary as her bedridden employer Diane, a largely invisible presence that we rather feel through the tea-stained half-light. the lighting and colonial decor of his home in the wealthy, predominantly white Capetonian suburb of Constantia. (The fact that a movie set in the whitest South Africa has an almost all-black ensemble is one of the more subtle surprises and upsets of “Good Madame”.)

When Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), unexpectedly arriving to stay with Mavis in the cramped quarters of her servants, asks if maybe it isn’t time to warn Diane, Mavis acerbically remarks that it would turn into a house in the process. Diane’s children having immigrated to Australia, like so many white South Africans, “she is my problem, she is my burden” – and also, in a cruel way, her lifeline. “Bonne Madame” is a caustic satire of this hypocritical social contract by which long-term domestic workers are frequently declared “part of the family” by their employers, even though their income, accommodation and eventual inheritance clearly mark them as others.

Tsidi, meanwhile, has lived her whole life between two worlds. Raised largely in poverty by her grandmother in the family’s hometown of Gugulethu on the outskirts of Cape Town, she regularly visited her mother in Diane’s house, but did not feel less excluded in the over the years. For his half-brother Gcinumzi (Sanda Shandu), the story was very different. Raised in Diane’s house, where he was semi-adopted and renamed Stuart by the white family, he became what Tsidi derisively calls a “coconut,” black on the outside and white on the inside: “I need Google Translate just to communicate with him,” sniffs.

Yet she’s jealous enough of Stuart and his now comfortably bourgeois existence to want the same for Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), as they crush the house and gradually assert themselves in its mostly unoccupied rooms – even horrifyingly. Mavis using Diane’s fine china instead of the cheap maids’ dishes. “She makes you live under apartheid”, reprimands Tsidi, not incorrectly, although she does not yet know half of it: foreign forces may be at play in the house to ensure their continued servitude, associating a strain of mythical and metaphorical horror. to the country’s continuing legacy of inequalities.

If anything, “Bonne Madame” gets it wrong in spelling those weird whispers a bit too clearly in her script, for which the film’s excellent set receives co-writing credit – its multilingual and freely switchable code exchanges have the authentic verve and snap of successful workshops, though the narrative remains tightly contained. But it’s Bass’s curvy, disciplined cinema that silently hints at all the bad vibes and evil spirits at play in this house, which the film never departs from after its initial setup. Working as his own cinematographer, Bass negotiates the spaces, voids and blind spots of the house with a camera tiptoed, often peering around corners and stairs in anxious and blinded close-ups. Its detailed, manned, oppressive beige production design, meanwhile, is perfectly suited to the balance between touristy African and Western kitsch in the average white South African home.

Finally, however, these are two remarkable performances that elevate the most “Good Lady” of the intelligent concept to something that anxiously settles in the bones. As a mother and daughter who do not know each other very well – but both pursue social upliftment, or at least protection, beyond their limited means – the lively and defiant Cosa and the stooped and helpless Mtebe marigolds enter the film angularly opposed in body language and vocal delivery, only to meet halfway, mirroring as the film progresses, emerging almost as two editions of one woman. Confrontations and reparations, of sorts, are made during Bass’s delicate social thriller; hereditary hierarchies are more difficult to shake.


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