The Cleaning Lady


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Looking for perfection
"What begins with shrewd character observation and a good deal of bitter humour gradually sheds its skins and becomes something more blatantly horrific."

Friendly relationships at work are always complicated, especially when there's an imbalance of power. A friendly boss may have the best intentions but, though real friendships do sometimes form in this situation, it's difficult to tell if an employee simply feels obliged to reciprocate in order to avoid trouble. How much more so when the contract of employment involves domestic service?

Alice (co-writer Alexis Kendra) is lonely. She deals with it by having affairs with married men, something that also keeps her well supplied with expensive gifts so she can live in a spacious apartment and buy whatever she wants. But she's not a natural sugar baby - she always makes the mistake of falling in love and wanting more than she can get. This time she's in love with Michael (Stelio Savante) and finding it difficult to break up with him, though other members of her addiction support group tell her that she must. So she tries to buy the one thing that money doesn't really help with - a friend. Cleaning lady Shelly (Rachel Alig) needs to work for her, obviously coming from poverty. At first she seems to warm to Alice's friendly overtures and invitations to stay and eat after completing her duties. But she has needs and concerns of her own, and her brutal experience of life is something Alice can't even guess at.

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An astute script takes in the superficiality of the women's relationship and neatly exposes differences created by class and other forms of social advantage, even as Alice's ignorance is maintained. It's summed up by Alice's assumption that the burn scars on Alice's face must be the result of an accident. Nothing worse happens to people in the world she understands. In full on saviour mode, she decides to teach Shelly how to cover them with make-up, essentially telling her that she'll be much more acceptable if she wears a mask. It's the beginning of an exploration of forms of physical disguise that gradually draws out the ways the characters disguise themselves psychologically and socially.

What begins with shrewd character observation and a good deal of bitter humour gradually sheds its skins and becomes something more blatantly horrific. Director Jon Knautz knows how to unsettle viewers and when to switch registers in order to scare. Gore fans will not be disappointed. Nevertheless, the focus remains on the psychological, particularly on the ways that women manipulate other women in situations where economic power is held by men. What Shelly ultimately does may be closer to traditional ideas of horror, but Alice's thoughtless cruelties are potent because they can be recognised as ubiquitous. Whilst Shelly may be dangerous in her urge to locate the sources of her suffering outside herself, it's not clear that Alice really has much of a concept of the humanity of other people.

Exploring the horror convention of the scarred villain and conventionally beautiful victim, Knautz turns both on their heads and creates something much more complex. The Cleaning Lady is a film full of illusions that invites us to question our own.

Reviewed on: 25 Aug 2018
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As a means to distract herself from an affair, a love-addicted woman befriends a cleaning lady, badly scarred by burns. She soon learns, these scars run much deeper than the surface.

Director: Jon Knautz

Writer: Alexis Kendra, Jon Knautz

Starring: Alexis Kendra, Stelio Savante, Rachel Alig, Elizabeth Sandy

Year: 2018

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


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