“It’s not that Mama doesn’t like this house — this house doesn’t like Mama,” explains Tsidi to her young daughter Winnie about the roomy, comfortable Cape Town pad in which they’ve recently taken up residence. Tsidi knows the place well. For as long as she can remember, it’s been home to her mother Mavis, which is not to say it’s Mavis’s house: A live-in domestic servant, she has been dutifully maintaining the place for decades for her well-to-do white madam, living and aging and even raising children — her own and otherwise — within walls that at once contain her and eternally reject her. The socially ingrained politics of South Africa’s master-servant culture are ultimately what haunt the house in Jenna Cato Bass’ crisp, chilling chamber piece “Good Madam.”
A quiet, tightly wound horror film, Bass’ fourth and most briskly accomplished feature might flirt with the supernatural, but finds terror aplenty in social dynamics that, to many a South African, are perfectly ordinary. (This is, after all, the terrain of South Africa’s most popular daily comic strip “Madam & Eve,” though there are no benign laughs to be found here.)
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As “Good Madam” surely gathers international interest after earning an honorable mention in Toronto’s Platform competition, it’s easy to imagine critics and marketers alike reaching for Jordan Peele comparisons to describe its multi-shaded evocation of black-and-white conflicts. But Bass’s film is its own unnerving creation: Matching familiar genre tropes to a particular national malaise, it pulls off a fine balance of universal resonance and cultural specificity. Building on her equally fascinating but less disciplined neo-western “Flatland,” “Good Madam” firmly establishes Bass as a standard-bearer for new South African cinema.
Disconcertingly amplified sound design immediately sets the viewer on edge in an opening montage of domestic drudgery: soaking pans, rusted drains and knuckles tensed around a scrubbing brush, all in tight, greasy close-up. These are daily chores for Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), who’s getting a little old and weary of the routine, if not quite as old and weary as her bedridden employer Diane, a largely unseen presence whom we instead feel through the dim, tea-stained lighting and colonial decor of her house in the wealthy, predominantly white Capetonian suburb of Constantia. (That a film set in whitest South Africa has an almost entirely Black ensemble is among the subtlest of “Good Madam’s” surprises and reversals.)
When Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), having arrived unannounced to stay with Mavis in her cramped servants’ quarters, asks if it isn’t perhaps time to put Diane into care, Mavis tartly points out that she’d be turning herself out of a home in the process. With Diane’s children having emigrated to Australia, like so many white South Africans, “she is my problem, she is my burden” — and also, in a cruel kind of way, her lifeline. “Good Madam” caustically satirizes that hypocritical social contract by which longterm household servants are frequently declared to be “part of the family” by their employers, even as their income, accommodation and eventual inheritance clearly mark them as other.
Tsidi, meanwhile, has lived her entire life between two worlds. Largely raised in poverty by her grandmother in the family’s home township of Gugulethu on Cape Town’s outskirts, she has regularly visited her mother in Diane’s house, but hasn’t been made to feel any less of an outcast over the years. For her half-brother Gcinumzi (Sanda Shandu), it’s been a very different story. Raised in Diane’s house, where he’s been semi-adopted and renamed Stuart by the white family, he has become what Tsidi derisively calls a “coconut,” black outside and white within: “I need Google Translate just to communicate with him,” she snorts.
Still, she’s sufficiently envious of Stuart and his now comfortably bourgeois existence to want the same for Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya), as they crash the house and gradually assert themselves in its mostly unoccupied rooms — even horrifying Mavis by using Diane’s fine china instead of the cheap maids’ crockery. “She has you living under apartheid,” Tsidi chides, not inaccurately, though she doesn’t yet know the half of it: Stranger forces may be at play in the house to ensure their continued servitude, pairing a mythic, metaphorical strain of horror to the country’s ongoing legacy of inequality.
If anything, “Good Madam” errs by spelling out these uncanny whispers a little too plainly in its script, for which the film’s entire, excellent ensemble receives co-writing credit — its multilingual, freely code-switching exchanges have the genuine verve and snap of successful workshopping, though the storytelling remains tightly contained. But it’s Bass’ sinuous, disciplined filmmaking that silently suggests all the bad vibes and bad spirits at play in this house, from which the film never strays after its initial setup. Working as her own cinematographer, Bass negotiates the house’s spaces, voids and blind spots with a tip-toeing camera, often peering around corners and up staircases in anxious, blinkered closeup. Her detailed, inhabited, beigely oppressive production design, meanwhile, is perceptively attuned to the balance of touristic Africana and Western kitsch in the average white South African home.
Finally, however, it’s two remarkable lead performances that most elevate “Good Madam” from the smartly conceptual to something that sets anxiously into one’s bones. As a mother and daughter who don’t know each other all that well — but are both chasing social elevation, or at least protection, beyond their confined means — the snappish, defiant Cosa and the stooped, unfussed Mtebe enter the film angularly opposed in body language and vocal delivery, only to meet halfway, mirroring each other as the film progresses, almost emerging as two editions of one woman. Confrontations and reparations, of a sort, are made in the course of Bass’s tricky social thriller; hereditary hierarchies are harder to shake.
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