When the lineup of this year’s Berlinale was announced, something that jumped out was the inclusion of BAD LIVING in competition and LIVING BAD in the Encounters sidebar. And no, that wasn’t a misprint. Portuguese filmmaker João Canijo in fact made two full-length films with the reverse titles. And after watching both, one would see that they are very much two halves of an organic, intricately conceived whole, a melodramatic epic with a twist.
BAD LIVING revolves around Piedade (Anabela Moreira), a middle-aged, clinically depressed woman who lives and works at a seaside hotel owned by her mother Sara (Rita Blanco). Piedade’s sister Raquel also works there, as does Ângela, a longtime supporter of the family. Business is slow and this staff of four seems quietly trapped in their own home. When Sara brings Piedade’s estranged teenage daughter Salomé back after her father’s death, a delicate equilibrium between the women is disrupted and old resentments start to leak through the cracks.
LIVING BAD follows the same chronology of events that take place at the hotel – observed in this case from the perspective of its guests. Divided into three parts, each is dedicated to one of the hotel’s three sets of customers. There’s an influencer/model who’s about to admit to her photographer boyfriend she’s been cheating on him with his best friend; an older woman (Leonor Silveira) who’s been toxically manipulating her daughter and son-in-law; and a young actress who must choose between her girlfriend and overbearing mother. Over the course of two days, these people who unknowingly partake in the unraveling of a family that serves them will experience discoveries, shocks and desperation of their own.
With these two films, Canijo has crafted a gorgeous cinematic diptych about private despair. It’s advisable to watch both titles back to back, because the beauty of their symmetry only truly reveals itself when one takes a second look. In BAD LIVING, the focus is trained strictly on the five women running the hotel, especially the epicenter of their unhappiness, Piedade. We would get brief glimpses of the guests checking in, ordering dinner, lounging at the pool, walking by in the corridors or hear them arguing from the next room, but their presence barely registers. In LIVING BAD, the camera goes after these throwaway clues and finds meaning in all that has seemed inconsequential.
Two scenes that best illustrate this change of perspective unfold at the swimming pool and the dining hall. When we first see them play out through the staff’s eyes, it’s an ordinary day at work where they have to hide their personal troubles and please a bunch of privileged, nameless vacationers. But when the same scenes are revisited from a different angle and then another, you realize there’s a lot more going on in the background than just noise. With expertly executed shots reflecting every possible viewpoint, Canijo succeeds in building a dizzying sense of déjà vu and keeps opening up exciting new dimensions to the story.
As stand-alone narrative works, BAD LIVING and LIVING BAD are driven by a tremendous ensemble and stunning visuals. The first film, in particular, is essentially about the inability of three generations of women to connect with each other. To capture that frustration and sheer airlessness, much of the movie is still. The actors are shot mostly by static cams, stuck within silent, unmoving frames like the characters they play. Which makes it all the more impressive that they managed to fill that space with drama and tension through the conviction of their performances.
As Piedade, Moreira delivers possibly the most convincing portrayal of a depressive since Kirsten Dunst in MELANCHOLIA. There’s no excessive crying, she barely ever raises her voice. The truthfulness of her performance comes instead from a chilling, unwavering calm. She’s playing someone who sees the impossibility of things and doesn’t even bother to protest. When she tells her daughter “Love is agony”, you feel the unbearable weight of every word. Playing her sharp, strong-willed mother Sara, Blanco is magnificent to watch. Contrary to the stereotypically loving, caring depiction of motherhood, she gets brutally honest with her child. It’s a testament to the precision of her work that Sara’s confrontational manners towards Piedade never come off as villainous or mean-spirited. Even when she physically assaults the latter in one remarkable scene, on some level you can understand the old lady’s rage at failing to get through to her daughter.
Speaking of villains, Silveira deserves a shout-out for playing the deliciously nasty mother-from-hell in LIVING BAD. If the central theme of BAD LIVING is things coming to an end, its follow-up is about the truth coming out. And boy does Silveira’s character tell it like it is. In a couple of scenes she shares with her daughter, she completely eviscerates the younger woman even though she’s the one having a not-so-secret affair with her son-in-law. Mighty, gloriously camp work.
Finally, both of these films look exquisite. With striking compositions and a hypnotically rich color palette, DP Leonor Teles has created images of lingering beauty. Even more importantly, the shots are often so expressively framed and lit they add a whole layer of emotional subtext to the action. In the scene where Salomé watches Piedade anxiously looking for her dog all over the hotel, the camera catches the young girl from the back, silently standing by the window and drenched in reflections from the world outside. The loneliness of realizing you probably mean less to your mother than a pet permeates the screen.
It’s unfortunate that BAD LIVING and LIVING BAD are presented separately in different festival sections, as a major appeal of the project lies in the combined experience of both parts. Even so, I would consider Moreira and Blanco to be strong contenders for the best lead/supporting performance prize, respectively. Ditto Teles for outstanding artistic contribution for her stunning camerawork. We shall see whether this pans out in just under three days’ time.