Love, like most of life’s gifts, is a real motherfucker. It can transcend class, race, distance, and ideology. It can give one life and make that life feel worth living. But to receive those virtues, you’ve got to open yourself up to dangers of falling in love. Not only the heartbreak it can cause, but the pain it needs to create – the constant, destructive tearing down of the boundaries between people. Love is a dangerous process, and Good Manners is very aware of that. I just wish the film would whisper it softly into my ear, not shout it in my face.
Thankfully, it takes more than an hour for the film to step out of nuance and into the obvious. Before that, writers/directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, in their third stab at a naturalistic horror film after Hard Labor and Necropolis Symphony, focus on a burgeoning relationship between two Brazilian women who take markedly different approaches in dealing with their loneliness. Clara (Isabél Zuaa) needs a job. She’s a solitary, watchful, dark-skinned woman who’s behind on rent for her plain apartment (her landlord, played comically by Cida Moreira, gives a performance tonally at odds with this section of the film). Clara’s nerves are clearly on edge when she walks into the swanky apartment of the pregnant, light-skinned Ana (Marjorie Estiano), interviewing for the position of a live-in nanny. Though Clara has little experience and sketchy references, her intuitive relieving of pregnancy pains convince Ana that she’s right for the job. Clara diligently tends to Ana’s needs, which comes to include helping her shop, building her future baby’s crib, and feeding her extravagant hunger for meat. Despite the lopsided power dynamics, their relationship soon transforms into something more.
For this first hour, Good Manners is a patient exploration of two people gradually opening up to each other. Ana knowingly takes advantage of Clara’s desperate position to ask for more work than usually comes with being a nanny, and Clara accepts this condescending overreach, partially out of financial need and partially out of pity for the seemingly friendless Ana. As their relationship develops, a shared loneliness and indelible chemistry pulls them closer, blurring the line between professional and romantic. Their burgeoning romance is complicated by the entrenched classism and racist attitudes that colour Ana’s approach, which leads to Clara actively undermining Ana’s presumptuous attitudes through subtle power plays. Estiano brings a flighty naiveté to her role that softens Ana’s edges, but Zuaa gives what should be a star-making performance; possessed of watchful eyes and an earthy charisma, she makes Clara’s transformation from withdrawn nerves to confidant romantic a believable continuation of spirit, despite the script missing a few beats in building her attraction to the guileless rich girl.
And then, after all this time delicately pulling at these characters’ seams, Rojas and Dutra violently tear them open. Put simply, the film changes for the worse. I won’t say more, because it is, at first, a bracing turn to high energy genre fare. But the giddy high that comes with such a surprise narrative switcheroo fades. Zuaa is just as good in the second movement, which is told with competence and a clear respect for its genre forebears, but it is overly-familiar, ditching the complexity and nuance of the first half for crowd-pleasing cliche. In the first part, knowledge of love’s foibles underscores the action, elevating the journey but not defining it. The second part uses bluntly allegorical genre elements to constantly remind the audience that love hurts. It does, but that’s the part that everyone knows. Good Manners is at its most fascinating when it leaves that old song behind and explores the murky space between pain and ecstasy.