The economy’s a mess but Sofía’s hair is perfect in Alejandra Márquez Abella’s “The Good Girls,” a film that is all surface in a way that is not, for once, a negative. The primped, powdered and shoulder-padded story of the fall from grace of a 1980s Mexican socialite is all about buffed and lustrous surfaces — poreless skin, laquered nails, silken fabrics — all the veneer of social superiority that money can buy. It’s an illusion, of course, that such a thin plating of wealth offers any protection against the changeable climate outside. But it’s such a seductive lie that the vacuous, complacent people thus ensheathed are prone to believe it, forgetting that their glaze of perfection is as brittle as the burnt-sugar topping on a crème brûlée. It’s delicious when it cracks.
We’re introduced to Sofía (Ilse Salas) in fragments: her hair being lathered in the shameless soft-focus slow-motion of a shampoo commercial; her mascara being applied in extreme close-up; her hands smoothing down the cinched waist of her designer dress. Meanwhile, her dreamy voiceover describes a fantasy: a birthday party, thrown for herself at which everything is just so, she is the envy of everyone present in her silk dress from New York, and she catches the eye of party guest Julio Iglesias. The first irony of this deeply sardonic film is that, aside from the Julio Iglesias detail, the fantasy is exactly real. She really does float down the stairs in her New York ivory silk, she really is admired by all and her trendsetting menu — serving octopus — really is quite the hit.
This mordantly witty opening can be read in either of two ways: Either we’re meant to be happy for Sofía given just how closely her real life resembles her wildest fantasy, or we’re supposed to despise her a little for her lack of imagination. A few elegantly snide comments to her similarly immaculate best friend Alejandra (Cassandra Ciangherotti) and a disdainful glance or two at a husband who’s had a little too much to drink, or a wife whose deep unhappiness is peeking through her façade (“tacky” is how the women summarize such lapses), and we’re already opting for the latter. Márquez Abella’s clever little trick is to release us early from the duty of liking her protagonist, the better for us to take dark pleasure in her gradual dismantling.
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It’s a process that takes time, with the film’s pacing as luxurious as the tasteful interiors of Sofía’s designer home. She blithely packs her children off to camp and enjoys her usual shopping trips, salon visits and tennis club gossip sessions with her Mean Girls clique. She even condescends to a coffee date with “tacky” parvenu Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan), the young wife of a local businessman who is, unlike Sofía’s husband Fernando (Flavio Medina), on a hot streak. But soon the burble of economic unrest on the radio, and Fernando’s increasing dishevelment become difficult to ignore and the specter of financial ruin (during Mexico’s 1982 peso crash) creeps closer to Sofía’s inner circle. Credit cards are declined, checks bounce and it’s all she can do to get Fernando to shave and leave the house. “I don’t want the maids thinking their boss is useless,” she hisses.
Not since George Cukor’s “The Women” has the competitive dynamic among a group of wives been as minutely dissected as here, at least not on the big screen, and “The Real Housewives of Altlanta” never boasted such sumptuous filmmaking. But what’s especially refreshing is how little their internal rivalries have to do with their menfolk: These women are hardly feminist role models, but there is something sort of splendid in their absolute and complete self-absorption. Clad in Annai Ramos’ brilliantly observed ’80s costuming, and flattered by Dariela Ludlow’s gorgeous cinematography, which fetishizes objects — tennis rackets and sunglasses and platters of sliced fruit — almost as much as its human subjects, the girls may not be good at all, and they may ultimately derive their self-worth from the value of their husbands’ portfolios, but they are, in their own way and especially around each other, formidable.
If they weren’t, it wouldn’t be so satisfying to see them brought low, a process that is accompanied to sometimes intrusive but always interesting effect by Tomás Barreiro’s hand-clap and heavenly-chorus score. It’s as though the music itself were sarcastically applauding and allelujah-ing not only the downfall of a one-percenter but the moment she is forced to acknowledge that underneath the gloss of privilege there lurks … nothing at all. Who cares that this kind of self-awareness on the part of the rich and shameless could not in reality be more of a fantasy if it ended with Julio Iglesias whisking us away on his yacht? With the wickedly pleasurable exercise in schadenfreude that is “The Good Girls,” we get to have have our crème brulée and eat it too.