Good Madam

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Good Madam
"Jenna Cato Bass’ tight, unnerving thriller creates a landscape of small signals." | Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

To be in service to somebody else is to develop a habit of constant alertness. It is to learn the fabric or a house, all its creaks and wheezings and tiny sounds which inform one of the movements of its other inhabitants and allow one to anticipate their needs; to catch sight of fleeting shadows which suggest their approach, enabling one to switch registers and avoid being caught looking overly focused on one’s private concerns. In other words, it exposes people to many of the same stresses as a horror film, but over years and years and years. Jenna Cato Bass’ tight, unnerving thriller creates a landscape of small signals which place the viewer in the same state as it explores the subject of servitude in modern South Africa.

This is like Apartheid, Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) tells her mother after moving back into the rambling plantation-style house in Constantia, Cape Town. Her mother, Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) snaps back at her that she has no idea what she’s talking about. She has a point. Not only is Tsidi only tangentially acquainted with the way things work between her and her Good Madam (a rarely seen Jennifer Boraine), but she’s only in her thirties – she doesn’t remember the way things used to be. Mavis has witnessed real horror and nothing much phases her now. Tsidi, on the other hand, finds horror in the way that he mother has settled for servitude.

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The cost, for Tsidi, has been high. Mavis was absent for much of her childhood, looking after Madam’s children, who have since emigrated to Australia. Tsidi was raised by her grandmother in the slums. She visited Madam’s house occasionally, but her memories of time spent there are not good. The only reason why she has returned, after a long period during which she and Mavis have barely communicated, is that due to a crisis in another part of her life, she and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) have found themselves with nowhere else to go.

Before long, Winnie has started seeing things. Is this her own remembered past intruding on the present, or is it something supernatural? Bad spirits are closely associated with places where human evil has been done. Winnie and Mavis are perpetually at odds. The girl wants to play but her grandmother doesn’t want her to touch anything. After she breaks a little crystal bell, Tsidi becomes still more alert to bell sounds, to summonings. One night, hidden away in the grounds, she finds an old graveyard for black servants, people who remained the property of the white family even in death. A pale dog with blue eyes watches her, like some messenger from the underworld. Elsewhere, she finds a book about shabti figures, traditionally created in the belief that they would act as servants in the afterlife.

Upstairs in her bedroom, Madam is dying. She grows continually weaker and can sometimes he beard gasping for breath. Mavis is distraught. She feels gratitude to this woman, perhaps for being less monstrous than she might have been, and for giving her son an education, even if she also took it upon herself to change is name. But it’s more than that. When Madam goes, so will the home she has lived in for decades; the home surrounded by barbed wire fences which keep poor people out. She will no longer be able to pretend that any of this is hers. Tsidi finds her sleepwalking, trying to go about her routine tasks, to be of service even when she is unconscious.

Madam’s children are not unsympathetic. They assure Mavis that she will be taken care of. They are young, liberal, modern in their outlook. We see them at home in Australia, enjoying a garden party, an anonymous black person cleaning away the dishes.

Reviewed on: 18 Mar 2022
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A woman moves in with her estranged mother, who is a devoted servant to an elderly white woman in a house haunted by the spectre of South Africa's past.

Director: Jenna Cato Bass

Writer: Babalwa Baartman, Jenna Cato Bass, Chumisa Cosa

Starring: Chumisa Cosa, Nosipho Mtebe, Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya, Sanda Shandu, Khanyiso Kenqa

Year: 2021

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: South Africa

Festivals:

Glasgow 2022

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