'The Good Life'

A once-rich, now-impoverished Danish femme and her elderly mother take centerstage in comic-melancholic docu "The Good Life."

A once-rich, now-impoverished Danish femme and her elderly mother take centerstage in comic-melancholic docu “The Good Life,” another fine effort from Danish helmer Eva Mulvad (“Enemies of Happiness”). Essentially a static character study in which nothing dramatic actually happens, pic will stand or fall on how sympathetic auds find its eccentric protagonists. Exposure at a major fest could help this entertaining pic earn theatrical bookings offshore, but otherwise, it’s destined for a good enough life in ancillary, especially on upscale TV stations.

Fiftysomething Annemette Beckmann and her aged mother, Mette Beckmann, once lived large off the inheritance of Mette’s husband, Valdemar. They vacationed in the South of France, shopped in Paris and spent much of the year in sunny Portugal rather than their native Denmark. But, as Annemette explains vaguely, when the then-communist Portuguese government nationalized the country in 1974, the Beckmanns’ wealth was wiped out. Since then, the family has been living in increasingly lower-rent digs. Valdemar died fairly recently, leaving his wife and daughter with only Mette’s pension.

Now, the two women live in a small apartment in Cascais, Portugal, crammed with the remaining knickknacks of their once-wealthy lifestyle. They bicker constantly about money, while Annemette blames her parents for the fact that she was raised “like a princess,” and never taught a proper trade or sent to a university. At least, that’s her excuse for failing to ever get a job, although she’s seen making some effort to do so in the film. Passive but realistic Mette worries, clearly quite rightly, about what will happen to her daughter after she’s dead and the last valuables they possess have been sold.

It’s no accident that the situation here will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen Albert and David Maysles’ seminal 1975 docu “Grey Gardens,” which similarly observed a pair of genteel dames down on their luck. At post-screening Q&A, helmer Mulvad admitted she even showed the Beckmann ladies “Grey Gardens,” and one can’t help wonder if Annemette, who has her own unique sartorial sensibility (she favors animal prints), might be playing up to the cameras with Little Edie Bouvier Beale in mind.

Unfortunately for “The Good Life,” the duo featured here isn’t as interesting or sympathetic as the Beale ladies. Annemette comes across as a raging narcissist, albeit one with a certain blowsy charm, who can’t let go of her disappointment with life, while her sometimes cruel tirades at her mother grow repetitive over the pic’s long haul. Mette’s more likable, her mistakes more forgivable, but only rarely does a certain steeliness glint through the mousy demeanor.

Lensing by Mulvad herself, with additional camerawork by Sophia Olsson, goes out of focus occasionally. Tech highlight is an achingly beautiful orchestral score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson that accompanies montages of old Super 8 footage of the Beckmann family in finer days.

The Good Life

Denmark

Production

A Danish Documentary Prod. presentation, with the support of the Danish Film Institute, TV2 Denmark, NRK, SVT, Nordisk Film & TV Fund. (International sales: DR Intl., Copenhagen.) Produced by Sigrid Dyekjaer. Directed by Eva Mulvad, based on an idea by Kirsten Laumann.

Crew

Camera (color, HD, Super 8), Mulvad, Sophia Olsson; editor, Adam Nielsen; music, Johann Johannsson; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Rasmus Winther Nielsen; Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (competing), Nov. 20, 2010. Running time: 87 MIN.

With

Annemette Beckmann, Mette Beckmann. (Danish, Portuguese, French, English dialogue)
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