Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Here at The Thread, we’re fascinated by the layered masks of servitude.
Years ago, we had the privilege of walking like a ghost – transient and invisible — through the homes of New York City’s elite. At the time, crumbs from their table was wealth to us. Putting on our second-hand tuxedo every evening allowed us to finally make a decent living in New York City. And the bonus: we learned how the other half lived.
The price we paid was the mask we had to wear; for us, it was worth it.
In last Sunday’s Times, Edward Frame chronicles serving today’s one percenters in a three-star restaurant. Sounds like for him the mask was an uneasy fit.
But neither situation is even remotely like being a live-in, where you’re almost part of the family. Or maybe not, as imagined in this week’s tasty Brazilian import:
THE SECOND MOTHER (2015)
Both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter raved when this Portuguese-language film premiered at Sundance this year. We just reread those reviews; dying to see it.
Brazilian TV and movie star Regina Casé plays the live-in housekeeper/nanny to a wealthy Brazilian family. Hyper-competent, loving, and self-effacing, she is the glue that holds the family together.
But her job has entailed sacrifices – she hasn’t seen her own child for ten years. When the daughter comes to stay with the family, she is the opposite of her mother – bold, and sassy. Predictably, things go a little haywire.
This fourth feature by writer/director Anna Muylaert was inspired by the experience of hiring a nanny twenty years ago when her own child was born.
The movie asks some probing questions, but manages to be upbeat as well. It won awards at both Sundance and Berlin. Out in New York this weekend.
This time the upper class family is from Chile. What do you do when you’ve made all the sacrifices, and then the status quo is threatened?
Sebastian Silva’s exploration of domestic servitude is a playful slow burn that toys with the expectations we have from previous entries in the ‘bad maid’ genre (check out 2001’s Murderous Maids).
Catalina Saavedra (like Regina Casé, known in her own country for TV & theater) won multiple awards for her portrayal of the loyal but extremely territorial family retainer who slowly turns up the heat when a younger woman is brought in to help her out.
The surprising results grabbed a Sundance Grand Jury Award and a Golden Globe nom for the film plus Sundance and Gotham awards for Saavedra.
The intricate waltz of class and service has spawned not one, but two, hugely popular and long-running soap operas.
This watchwork of a film distills the clichés that were embodied by Gordon Jackson (Mr. Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs) and Jim Carter (Carson in Downton Abbey), and into a much more subtle and poignant human drama, played out here between Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson with a spot on supporting cast.
Remains of the Day is the last big film of the Merchant Ivory Productions’ high period and bears all the watermarks of their best work – literate and beautiful in detail, shot in a number of English Great Houses. The impact of is devastating, but subtle – watch it, but make sure you’re wide awake and up to the task.
Broader but still fascinating is this adaptation of a play based on a true story, with Glenn Close in a star turn as the male lead, and Janet McTeer also in drag.
Yes, there are class issues imbedded in these stories of servants, but in the end, what keeps us fascinated in these stories are the themes of identity and freedom of choice.
Here, as in Remains, the role of a servant is a perfect mask for a person who wants to avoid intimacy at all costs. A perfect butler is not required to have a personal life – far better to be a eunuch. And, as in this story, better even to die than to be unmasked.
Despite the award nominations, we found Close’s performance masterful and even compelling, but not completely convincing. It was probably better as a play.
But in a weird way, our inability to completely suspend disbelief was what really made the movie stick. Whatever our role in society, we play it every day, and are successful or not to the degree that we convince other people to play along.
So are we saying that we found Robin Williams more convincing as a woman than we found Glenn Close as a man?
Not exactly. But we are saying that as sad as it is when people are forced by society to play roles, it also gives you the opportunity to invent a persona that is much more… flamboyant, sophisticated, funny, loving, sensual… or in this case, responsible. More whatever you might secretly want to be – than the one you’ve been using.
That’s one reason why we kind of liked being a waiter. Movies are always urging us to be our true selves, and all we’re saying is – which one?
But we also picked this one because this turned into kind of a heavy post for the last week of August. Maybe we’ll just put rent Mrs. Doubtfire and watch it with the kids.
“Part Mary Poppins and part Weegee,” as Manohla Dargis described her in the Times, Vivian Maier was a French-American nanny in 50’s and 60’s Chicago with a compelling secret identity – a hugely prolific street photographer of some talent.
Maier never showed her work – over a hundred thousand negatives were discovered after her death by Edward Maloof, one of the directors of this documentary, who leveraged her images into an internet sensation and then into a Kickstarter campaign and profession for himself.
Although she seems to have been a sometimes mediocre nanny, some of her ex-charges cared for her in her old age, yet never knew how eccentric, private and talented she was. The deep enigma of her life and craft have spun into a number of debates – about the nature of art, her posthumous right to privacy, and even her mental competency.