VIFF 2017 Capsule Reviews #3

Good Manners, a new film by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas, combines the exploration of the maternal bond from Rosemary’s Baby with a werewolf tale, to entertaining effect. Ana, a young woman from a wealthy family, has an affair with a mysterious stranger who impregnates her with a werewolf baby. The pregnancy progresses and Ana hires Clara, a poor nurse from São Paulo, to help her cope. Clara not only forms a romantic bond with Ana, but she becomes the child’s surrogate mother, as well.

The strength of Good Manners is in the tightrope the film walks between drama and the ridiculous. The child, Joel, grows up and enters school, knowing that every full moon, he must be chained to a wall. He accepts this with a grace that is so deadpan it is hilarious. Later, the carefully controlled life Clara has designed for Joel completely unravels, and the horror aspect of Good Manners takes over. Some viewers may struggle with the hybrid genre, wishing perhaps for more horror and less dark comedy, or vice versa. But Dutra and Rojas have struck a great balance. It is worth it for Isabél Zuaa’s performance as Clara alone, as she walks the genre tightrope with ease.

In God’s Own Country, the new film by Francis Lee, a morose, sullen young farmer named Johnny finds romance with Gheorghe, the Romanian man brought in to help with the sheep lambing season. Like Heath Ledger’s iconic character in Brokeback Mountain, Johnny, played by Josh O’Connor, is a bundle of compressed rage and seething resentment at his position in life. Ordered around by a stern father, unable to openly admit his sexuality due to the rural Yorkshire environs, he is always on the verge of exploding until he meets the calm and intense Gheorghe.

Their relationship develops over the bulk of the film’s run time, and this is the film’s anchor. O’Connor doesn’t set a single foot wrong as Johnny, and his counterpart, Alec Secareanu, is a master of quiet, brooding sexuality. Their relationship is at times touching, funny and moving. Unfortunately, just as Johnny bears a striking resemblance to Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar, many of God’s Own Country’s later scenes borrow significant and very specific references from Ang Lee’s film. These include key moments such as one man seeing the other’s favourite shirt on a hanger, and burying his face in it. There are a surprising number of these apparent borrowings; however, I do not mean to suggest that God’s Own Country is in any way fraudulent. It is just a pretty major distraction in an otherwise excellent film.

Disappearance, by director Boudewijn Koole, tells the story of a Dutch photographer who travels to an isolated town in Norway to find her domineering mother and much, much younger brother and patch up their relationship. The woman, Roos, is terminally ill, and feels the ticking of her life’s clock counting down. Their story is a bit familiar, as each character is stuck in a stock concept… the mother is cold and harsh, the daughter lives free and never settles down, the young son is a precocious genius. These do not feel like real people, but rather ideas being moved around the screen by Koole’s hands. And Koole interferes occasionally, inserting little artistic flourishes into certain scenes that fail to add anything to the moment.

The biggest issue with Disappearance is the screenplay, which broadcasts its themes quite literally. Roos wants to decide her own fate, but her mother Louise disapproves. Later, an animal actually falls from out of nowhere onto Roos’ car and then heads into the forest, leading Louise to explain that it is never right to let a wounded animal roam free. Roos will later ask her mother to allow her to roam free, again, quite literally. Yet too much of the rest of the film is left unexplained, or is just there.