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Bad Life review: A somber drama about toxic womanhood

Misery loves company, which may explain Portuguese director João Canejo’s decision to split his angst-ridden hotel project into two complementary films. Both were selected in Berlinale, with half centering on hotel guests (“Living Bad”) in the encounters section, and “Bad Living,” which revolves around hotel staff, taking center stage in the competition. It makes reviewing one without mentioning the other something of an exercise in shadowboxing, especially when, as in “The Bad Life,” a careful observation of their deteriorating female relationships could have used some kind of counterpoint, if only to bring about relentless grimness, The broken 127 minutes go by a bit faster. They may work in the hospitality business, but the women in the “bad life” live in a draining, semi-permanent state of hostility.

The location of the Heartbreak Hotel is perhaps the movie’s biggest star. It’s a large, modern building, though not so modern that it doesn’t feel frayed around the edges. This impression is reinforced by DP Leonor Teles’ handsome, yet darkly colored, slightly bleak photography that always looks as if the camera is struggling to take in enough light. The complex has been carefully maintained, right down to the large outdoor pool in which housekeeper/chef/factotome Angela (Vera Barreto) liquefies chlorine when the movie opens. Nearby, hotel manager Bidadi (Annabella Moreira) is resting on a sun lounger after one of her frequent solo swim workouts.

Piedad’s mother, Sarah (Rita Blanco), owns the place. Piedadi’s prickly daughter Salome (Madalena Almeida) unexpectedly comes to stay after the death of her father, from whom Piedadi had been estranged for so long. The quintet is rounded off by cousin Raquel (Clee Almeida) who works as a maid/waitress, and is in a relationship with Angela, but still has occasional sex with random (male) guests. Sarah harshly criticizes her daughter, who in turn completely alienates her Ha girl. Nevertheless, the granddaughter and grandmother get along just fine, united in part by their mutual dislike of Piedad: no wonder her nerves are frayed, her forehead chiseled in a perpetual furrow of tension. In this family, maternal affection seems to transcend a generation.

The hotel is failing, and there is talk of selling, but very little actual action. Don’t be flattered by superficial comparisons to the “White Lotus” TV phenomenon, this is a slow tape-aid removal of gradually widening fractions, of eavesdropping eavesdroppers in doorways to hear nothing about themselves, of rare encounters, rare confessions and moments of coexistence that are rarer than either again. As a writer-director, Canegu seems to strive for a tragic Bergmanesque effect—there are plenty of windows and mirrors for one woman or another to peer into—but with such a lack of human warmth, tragedy never takes over reality. By the time the worst happens, everyone has been so miserable and terrible for each other for so long, it feels like a relief.

Not content to let spiraling relationships speak for themselves, at times the impressive craft becomes smugly somber. The overlapping dialogue makes some of the ambiguous exchanges unintelligible (non-Portuguese speakers should quickly read an abbreviated version in translation). Teles’ penchant for minimal lighting can go so far: one confessional scene by the pool at night is shot so bleak that, from such an oblique angle, we can barely tell who Raquel is talking to. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

The shows are dedicated but given little wiggle room inside their various psychological cages. As daughter, mother, employee, employer, tormentor, and tormentor, Piedad is the focal point through which much of the film’s unhappy energies flow, and so only expressions of distress seem allowed. Still, fashion designer Sylvia Cioppa does a fine job with Piedadi’s wardrobe—all fall dresses and skirt-and-blouse combos that look well-made but not quite trendy, and seem to smell a little like mothballs.

It’s very likely that Kanegu thinks men are the worst, too. Perhaps male hotel guests who were briefly glimpsed during check-in, or dining at the hotel’s restaurant, would come in for a similarly negative assessment in “Living Bad.” (Quite likely, in fact, given that they are apparently based on plays by Strindberg, not known for his obsessions about the human condition.) But if so, she makes the decision to stretch and separate these stories into two films—longer than two hours each— Even more confusing, leaving this excluded version open to accusations of the kind of sexism that imagines women, when left alone together, inevitably turn into malicious rebukes and mutual resentment. Of course, merging the films into one would fundamentally change the dismal DNA of The Bad Life, because guests are always up for grabs. They can check out anytime they like; These women can’t leave.


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