Jenna Cato Bass’ The Good Madam, streaming on Shudder July 14, is a horror film about a white conspiracy against Black lives and Black bodies. As such, it inevitably draws comparisons to Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking Get Out!
Those comparisons aren’t exactly off base. But the differences are as important as the parallels. Peele’s movie was about how all Black people are under threat from white people. The villains laid traps for strangers and even sometimes just kidnapped them off the street; the horror had the impersonal feel of a slasher. The Good Madam, in contrast, is about more intimate exploitation, and slow, generational, familial betrayal.
Loyalty and Servitude
The film’s protagonist is Tsidi (Chumisa Cosa), a Black South African single mother. Tsisdi lives with her paternal grandmother in Gugulethu, a township outside Cape Town. When her grandmother dies, family tension forces her out of the house.
With nowhere else to turn, she takes her daughter Winnie (a radiant Kamvalethu Jonas Raziya) to stay with her mother Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe) at a Cape Town mansion. Mavis works there as a servant, housekeeper, and caretaker to an ill, rarely seen wealthy white woman named Diane.
Mavis has spent her life with Diane, and to Tsidi her loyalty to her employer seems excessive and unhealthy. Mavis insists that Tsidi and Winnie must be quiet and respectful at all times lest they disturb Diane sleeping upstairs. She won’t drink from Diane’s cups but has her own set aside. Tsidi suggests that the separate dishes hark back to apartheid.
Mavis has even in some ways chosen—or been forced to choose—Diane over her own children. Tsidi’s half-brother Gcinumzi, who also goes by Stuart (Sanda Shandu), was raised along with Diane’s white children and seems more loyal to his wealthy benefactress than to his own mother.
Tsidi, meanwhile, stayed with her grandmother and visited Mavis only occasionally. She followed the strict house rules and watched Mavis lavish care on Diane’s children. “I have no birth mother,” Tsidi says, with great bitterness.
The House That Doesn’t Like You
These complicated relationships, jealousies, and old angers are revealed with quiet efficiency. This isn’t a roller-coaster thriller. Rather, Bass, who did the cinematography herself, builds an atmosphere of claustrophobic anxiety and dread.
The camera trods through the house like Mavis herself. It feels like it can barely pull itself through doors; it gets stuck in hallways. Details of the décor leap out and are frozen in place; cups, tile designs, and indigenous masks which Diane, ironically and ominously, collects. The sound design is also intrusive. Drains roar, doors boom shut, the house emits an ambient hum, like the whirr of insect wings, waiting.
Bass’ compositions are carefully, brilliantly cramped. She frames each shot so that the interior of the house seems to be closing in around the image. Tsidi is obscured by cabinets or entryways.
In one stomach-lurching shot, from Diane’s viewpoint, the camera is turned 90 degrees and Tsidi appears to be standing sideways, walls hemming her in as if she’s in a coffin. “It’s not that Mama doesn’t like this house. This house doesn’t like Mama,” Tsidi tells her daughter, and you can see the animosity on the screen. The immaculate, clean, expensive interiors, the scrubbed floors, and airy windows all seem to be stalking her for the kill.
The acting, partly improvised, is also layered with small, sharp details. In one scene Mavis, previously circumspect, finally opens up and criticizes the house and implicitly Diane. She suddenly turns into a person rather than a functionary, as Tsidi watches in almost unbelieving delight.
In another wonderful sequence, Gcinumzi tells his mother that Diane is dying. Mavis cries helplessly. It’s unclear if she is grieving for her employer, for the coming loss of employment and shelter, or because she fears some other, more sinister fate. While she weeps, her hand continues to polish the counter; Gcinumzi assures her she can stop working soon, but despite his words, the work obsessively, compulsively goes on.
Acquiring What You Love
Compared to cinematography and acting, the plot is relatively mundane. Tsidi experiences frightening dreams. She sees things that may or may not be there. She wonders if she is going mad. She slowly comes to the horrible truth you figured out a half hour ago. And there’s a final twist betrayal which you probably tweaked as well. It’s all efficiently and even elegantly done, but given the power of other aspects of the movie, it’s a bit of a let down.
If the end of the film is predictable, though, the writing at the climax is not. As things spiral out of control, a character speaks a terrifying spell.
I acquire this field of yours which you love
I eat and carouse in it.
I drink and plough in it
I do not perish in it.
For my magic has power in it.
That’s a threat. It’s also a kind of love letter from the exploiter to the exploited, the dispossessor to the dispossessed. The words promise intimate violation and violence that looks like a caress. The Good Madam is about how power can turn even love into a box of fear and death.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Featured Image Courtesy of Causeway Films.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.