Berlinale 2023 review: Living Bad (João Canijo)

“This evokes a deep sense of melancholy in between moments of sheer provocation, focusing on a unique state of existential vulnerability that anchors this film and allows the director the time and space to investigate certain themes that ultimately become part of the broader artistic identity of this extraordinary two-part masterwork.”

In what is undeniably one of the most ambitious artistic endeavours of the past few years, João Canijo has constructed a fascinating project that is comprised of two individual films that function within the same world, and essentially orbit around similar existential concepts. Both are set entirely within a quaint hotel in an idyllic corner of Portugal, and focus on the daily routines of the occupants of the building. Living Bad (Viver mal) is the second part (although this implies that it is following from Bad Living, when in reality the two films are parallel in every way, and this one is only the successor based on being seen afterwards), and it focuses on the guests of this unnamed hotel, rather than the staff and proprietors, as was the case with the other film. It is certainly a curious experience to witness a project constructed as a pure diptych, the two films orbiting around each other in a way where, depending on the order in which one watches them, one shades in the ambiguities of the other, creating a beautifully cyclical and emotionally resonant experience. They each add layers onto one another, while still existing on their own as compelling and poetic depictions of the human condition, which Canijo examines with a combination of tenderness and forthright honesty, some of which can be quite difficult to comprehend at the start. That is until we reach the final moments of the film, when the emotions intertwine with the narrative, and create an astonishing and genuinely moving drama that touches on some extraordinary raw themes, but with tact and honesty, which we have come to expect from a director who has committed his craft to investigating the very qualities that make us human.

It is important to note that comparing the two films, as automatic a process as it may be (especially when they exist in such close proximity), is not doing either the justice they deserve as individual, self-contained pieces, which is essentially how they should be first approached. Canijo has referred to Living Bad as the “mirror image” of Bad Living, rather than an entirely symmetrical piece, which is a concept that only helps supplement the two films. The subtle differences between the two begin to make it clear where they deviate, both narratively and artistically. On a purely structural level, Living Bad is a film composed of a few segments (as opposed to the contiguous narrative of Bad Living), and from the manner in which this film is composed, we find new emotional complexities that Canijo keeps restricted to these smaller but still deeply compelling stories. Each of the segments (which overlap, mainly through the presence of a few characters that exist between the stories) focuses on a different kind of relationship – a married couple one of whose obsession with social media has become a source of contention between them; a mother vacationing with her daughter and her partner who finds herself becoming more intrusive in their relationship due to her own desires; and a pair of young women who find themselves faced with challenges in their burgeoning love affair. Each story works to add nuance to Canijo’s fascination with human relationships, and specifically the intricate connections that bind us together, as well as the small deviations that can gradually grow to pull apart those seemingly iron-clad emotional attachments, which form the foundation for many of the conversations that are conducted throughout this film.

Canijo’s particular brand of social realism is drawn from his inherent interest in looking at the human condition, but specifically from a psychological perspective. The events that take place throughout Living Bad are not particularly important – the characters eat dinner, swim in the hotel’s pool (which inexplicably has operating hours, one of the darkly comical details that punctuate this otherwise stoic film) and luxuriate in the splendour of their surroundings – but we barely notice what they are doing, since the focus is less on their rote, conventional activities and more on the conversations that occur alongside them. As a result, it becomes an even more voyeuristic experience, since we are viewing the lives of these people with the eyes of outsiders, which is shown by the atmosphere of detachment that pulsates throughout the film. A large portion of Living Bad takes place through glass – we view these characters in mirrors and the reflections of windows, which present a slightly distorted image that contributes to the separation between the audience and the characters, adding to the voyeuristic sensation that defines this film. Conversations are overheard, rather than presented to us (it often feels as if we are eavesdropping on discussions that we should not be hearing), plus the manner in which Canijo and director of photography Leonor Teles frame these characters so that their faces are frequently obscured, all work towards the film’s refusal to fully reveal them as individuals, their psychological states and the secrets they carry with them. Yet, it is never aloof in a way that is frustrating, since we are accompanying these characters on what is clearly a series of individual voyages of self-discovery, each one unique but still somehow interconnected with the others.

Living Bad is a film that defines the concept of sonder – that inescapable feeling of ethereal wonder in realizing that every person we pass by in our everyday routine is living their own individual and complex life, each one crossing over for the most fleeting of moments. Canijo is a director who implicitly understands the art of watching life move past, as shown through his fascination with the simplest of stories, which he forms into an evocative and powerful depiction of interpersonal interaction. His ability to view the human body itself as a work of art, where every gesture, movement and wayward expression tells a story, allows his actors the space to develop their craft and guides them in their contributions to a film that is best described as a fascinating and curious tableau of existential malaise. The entire cast is exceptional, but Leonor Vasconcelos, Filipa Areosa and Leonor Silveira are the standouts, their immense expressivity and ability to construct memorable characters anchoring their individual segments. Despite our impulse to draw correlations between the two films (which is intentional, by virtue of how they are designed – the two films are self-referential and exist in symbiosis, but they are also different enough in style and substance to exist independently), viewing Living Bad in isolation is enough for the viewer to immerse themselves in Canijo’s distinct and poignant examination of relationships, both fundamental to our existence, and those which we choose along our own individual journey. This evokes a deep sense of melancholy in between moments of sheer provocation, focusing on a unique state of existential vulnerability that anchors this film and allows the director the time and space to investigate certain themes that ultimately become part of the broader artistic identity of this extraordinary two-part masterwork; a term that is not used lightly, but which is certainly an apt description for Canijo’s stunning and evocative examination of life as it is, and has always been, which is the hauntingly beautiful conclusion we reach by the end of these two films.

(c) Image copyright: Midas Filmes