Collected Works: Film
The Second Mother
directed by Anna Muylaert
There is a slow-motion splash. Three adolescents emerge from a turquoise pool, all limbs and laughter, their gleaming bodies shedding sparkling droplets. The shrieks continue even when the action cuts to a shady interior. Overhearing the joyful antics, the adults indoors exchange disparaging looks. Back out in the sunshine’s glare, we watch from a balcony as a mother scolds her frolicking teen. Though we observe only her gesturing hands and the back of her head, we are able to picture her distressed expression with clarity.
Ten years ago, Val moved away from northeast Brazil to seek work in the city. As housekeeper for a well-off family of three, she now lives in a chic house in an affluent São Paulo suburb. All have settled into a state of domestic apathy, but this stagnation is disrupted when Val’s daughter, Jéssica, arrives to study for a university entrance exam. The girl who Val left behind has grown into a young woman, willing to push against society’s unspoken rules and to question its injustices.
The swimming pool is central to the action, serving as an unambiguous symbol of privilege. A no-go zone for Val and Jéssica, it makes manifest the divisions of rank within the household, the disparity in status between employer and employee. Yet, though it is her daughter who sets the plot in motion, Val is the film’s protagonist. She is presented as a comic character, though the humour never slips into ridicule. As a poor, middle-aged woman, lovingly and thanklessly caring for a child who is not her own, she makes for a refreshingly understated heroine.
We relish Val’s eventual transgression. Under the cover of darkness, she enters the pool that she has never before dipped a toe in. It may have been recently drained, but murky rainwater has accumulated to reach knee-height. Paddling, Val whispers to her daughter over the phone, barely able to mute her elation. The audience is left doubly satisfied: by this act of long-due defiance, and by the knowledge that the film’s title character has received the recognition that she deserves.
Words by Emma McKinlay