Some genre films are enjoyable to watch but leave no trace in the brain’s synapses, whereas others dig deeper, playing with fantasy elements to address issues that matter in the real world, where mythical creatures (and superheroes for that matter) don’t exist. “Good Manners” falls into that latter category, thanks to the diligence shown by writer-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, who use werewolf mythology to comment on class, difference and desire. Shrewder than their previous collaboration “Hard Labor,” a more heavy-handed parable on economic disparity, the duo’s new film is also more stylized, grounded in a 1940s and ’50s Hollywood aesthetic, yet updated for today. Although definitely overstretched at more than two hours, and not certain how to negotiate certain tonal shifts, “Manners” has much to recommend it, as recognized by Locarno’s Special Jury award. A lesbian subtheme means that specialty festivals besides genre ones will increase exposure, which should also boost VOD viewings.
Dark-skinned Clara (Isabél Zuaa, excellent) nervously arrives at a fancy apartment building in São Paulo for a job interview as a live-in nanny. Pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) isn’t impressed by Clara’s slight credentials — she didn’t finish nursing school and hasn’t looked after babies — but there’s something calming about her presence, and besides, her skin color makes Ana reflexively imagine she can also use Clara as a housemaid. The proud black woman immediately dispels such an idea, though Ana soon has her cleaning, cooking, shopping and painting the baby’s room.
The two are complete opposites: Clara is a strong, yet cautious, loner in need of a job. She lives in a neighborhood just one step up from the favelas, renting some rooms (she’s in arrears) from Dona Amélia (Cida Moreira), a classic movie landlady. In contrast, Ana’s an entitled 29-year-old from a rich plantation family, selfish and impulsive. She’s in São Paulo because her family cut her off when she got pregnant, though apparently she has enough money to rent a glam duplex apartment. And oh yes, she really, really, likes meat.
Rojos and Dutra ensure that class differences between these women come through loud and clear, from production design to Clara’s ultimate acceptance of her position as a favored servant who holds the shopping bags. One night, needing to decompress, Clara goes to a lesbian bar; when she returns, Ana’s acting strange and her eyes have turned a frightening yellow. She kisses Clara passionately and draws blood — naturally, there’s a full moon outside. Though disturbed by Ana’s strange somnambulistic behavior, Clara’s drawn to her employer, and the two consummate their relationship in a night of passion.
The script doesn’t do enough to convince viewers that no-nonsense Clara would fall for spoiled, now semi-demonic Ana, leaving a major gap in a film that banks on psychological perspicacity. In any event, their time together is short-lived. Via nicely drawn storyboarded vignettes, Ana relates how she got pregnant by a priest; when she awoke, the priest was gone and a wolf was in his place. Shortly after this stylized interlude, Ana’s child rips through her abdomen and the horrified Clara takes the infant werewolf from his mother’s dead body, planning on abandoning the monster. But her emotional attachment to Ana makes her change her mind.
From here, the film still has another hour to go, with Rojas and Dutra exchanging the intimate focus of master and servant for a more traditional — and less interesting — werewolf movie. Fast-forwarding seven years, Clara is a nurse and mother to young Joel (Miguel Lobo), still renting rooms from Dona Amélia. She’s very much in charge of her life, except at every full moon she needs to chain Joel up in a hidden room to protect himself and others. Clara has ensured he’s raised vegetarian, but Dona Amélia decides he needs protein, leading to expected consequences.
In the credits the directors thank Angela Carter and Walt Disney, among others, and given how both Carter and Disney reimagined children’s stories as metaphorical frameworks to expose broader issues, the script’s lineage makes sense. Class, desire, motherhood, responsibility to society — all these themes are worked in, to varying degrees. Yet balancing the film’s two halves is less successful, and certain shifts between humor and dead-seriousness don’t quite work.
“Good Manners” is an ambitious work not only in scope but design, influenced by Jacques Tourneur’s psychological horror noirs. The ultra-high ceilings of Ana’s duplex recall Hollywood set designs from the 1940s, reinforced through the use of obvious matte backdrops for the view outside the balcony. Artificial lighting, especially in Clara’s neighborhood at night, helps to further create the sense of a hothouse environment. Especially impressive is the model designed by Atelier 69 for the werewolf baby, digitized by Mikros Image and brought to life by superbly realistic CGI. Music and sound are also expertly utilized.