The legacy of Apartheid is examined through a horror lens in this effective but muddled domestic psychological thriller. The economic roots and its probing tendrils still linger a generation after the abolition of the regime, and Good Madam‘s allegorical microcosm of black servitude in South Africa shows that systemic behaviours die hard.
After an family argument forces Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter Winnie (Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) from their extended familial home, she moves in with her estranged mother. Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) has worked in the Capetown suburbs as a live-in maid for wealthy white woman Diane (Jennifer Boraine) for decades at the expense of everything else in her life. Tsidi remembers the house from her youth, large, forbidding, and cluttered with colonial trinkets and indigenous art. It seems the house remembers her to, and the sick old lady upstairs who is only registered as the tinkling of a service bell becomes the least creepy thing about the place. There are certain old secrets the building wants to keep hidden from the prodigal daughter.
Good Madam pulls from the same wellspring of race-driven variations on the haunted house like His House, The Skeleton Key, and especially Get Out. Jordan Peele’s contemporary classic has become a kind of ur-text for this kind of socially-conscious genre film, and director Jenna Cato Bass repurposes Get Out‘s totemic cup and spoon symbolism as nifty shorthand for the role of master and servant here. It’s perhaps a nod and a wink too far, we know very early the sources from which Bass is taking her cues, but the objects of the house are also weapons in the battleground between mother and daughter.
Even with her employer bedridden upstairs, Mavis carries out the same tasks with the somnambulant diligence she has for decades. Her work has the machine-like fluidity of ritual, and she insists that Tsidi and Winnie be almost as ephemeral in their impact on the place as the stranded Diane. Even on a purely economic level, if not a supernatural one, Mavis knows her security and her place in this home-that-is-not-her-home is predicated on the continued indulgence of the rich white lady. And, for the moment, so is Tsidi’s.
Apart from a few dalliances with ghostly tropes, the house itself is the locus of any malevolent focus, a practically deserted architectural metaphor for the old governance of an entire country. Bass’ camera peers gingerly round corners and zooms slowly into dark rooms as if terrified what it may find. It glides with satirical intent over carved representations of indigenous figures, certain that their owner considered herself a liberal, progressive figure. The sounds and sights of domestic drudgery take on a sinister undercurrent. The scrub of a brush is distorted until it sounds like some unknown beast scrabbling at a door, and water in a drain being is sucked down with a monstrous roar as if by Charybdis. This is the film’s central metaphor, and it’s conveyed more than effectively.
In fact, the central theme is repeated ad nauseam in a way that slightly bogs the film down a little in the second act. There are only so many ways the same point can be made. Having twelve credited writers onboard also occasionally gives a feel of too many cooks. There are half strands of narrative that could have been trimmed. There’s Tsidi’s combative relationship with her ex-husband which ultimately leads nowhere essential, and a briefly fractious period with Winnie as the young girl takes too keenly to her new, relative comfort. Again, this is extraneous. Where this level of collaboration does work is in the Mike Leigh-style workshopped dialogue which hops easily between Xhosa and English and which comes over (to the unpractised ear at least) as natural and genuinely conversational.
Good Madam is a generally impressive, self-contained psychological horror. While not as scary as it could have been, certainly compared to the films it resembles, it nevertheless succeeds in ingraining a sense of dread into the very walls of its location. Some have questioned whether it’s a tale that is really Jenna Cato Bass’ to tell as a white woman. It’s a fair argument, but in a pragmatic sense she’s used her technical knowhow to bring to life a story she’s penned in conjunction with her almost entirely black collaborators. If this indicates anything, it’s that there needs to be more of a grassroots movement to train a new generation of black South African filmmakers. It’s surely better that the film has been made, and for a mere $100,000, it’s a very solid piece of work.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022