Of all the films at this year’s GFF, this was the one I was most looking forward to. A South African horror, Good Madam focuses on multiple generations of women living in the house of the white employer of the grandmother. Despite being elderly, in failing health, and confined to her upstairs bedroom, Madam’s silent presence dominates the household.
Mavis has lived with Madam for the past 30 years, looking after her house and raising her kids. This work meant she had no time to raise her own daughter Tsidi, whom she sent to live with her own mother. She also had a son, who she gave to be adopted by Madam, so he could have a better standard of living.
Tsidi is pissed off. She’s argumentative to the point that people disengage with her, but she is almost always in the right, and knows exactly when she is being fucked over. When the film starts, the family’s great-grandmother has just died. Tsidi has nursed her through all her illness, living with her and looking after her, as she has been more of a mother to her than Mavis. Mavis doesn’t even get time off work to come to the funeral. When the rest of the extended family show up, Tsidi’s cousin lays claim to the great-grandmother’s house. Tsidi understandably kicks off, and to keep the peace a family elder tells them to share it. Tsidi is so affronted that this man who did nothing for his great-grandmother can walk in and claim the home Tsidi lives in, was raised in, has invested in and redesigned. Rather than ease everyone’s conscience by going along with the compromise, Tsidi storms out, taking her daughter Winnie, and the great-grandmother’s fur coat. A relative warns that leaving before they have concluded dividing the great-grandmother’s things is effectively leaving before completing the last of the funeral rites, and will cause her bad luck. Tsidi leaves regardless.
Mavis is not happy to see Tsidi and Winnie have come to stay, and keeps them crowded into her room, clearly a second rate servant’s room in an otherwise huge and comfortable house. Tsidi finds this ridiculous, considering there are multiple unoccupied rooms in the house, but Mavis points out it is Madam’s house, and Mavis’s room is the only one really at her disposal. Tsidi is incensed, how can this not be Mavis’s house if she’s lived her 30 years?
There is huge strain in the relationship between Tsidi and Mavis. Tsidi is still grieving, and all that pain and rage has been followed up quickly with her sudden and insulting dispossession, and being forced into an environment replete with the wounds of the past. She is angry that her mother chose to devote herself to Madam more than her own family. She is angry at the injustice she sees in the home. She is infuriated by Mavis’s unwillingness to stand up for her own interests. She hates going along with the numerous stifling rules of Madam’s house. She hates how Madam still seems to have all the power in the home, even now as a dozing invalid clinging to consciousness and life.
Then spooky stuff starts up. All is not well in Madam’s house. Mavis is insistent that everything is fine, but Tsidi is sure that malevolence is within their walls.
Sound and music are excellent, Madam literally has one line in this movie and is on screen for maybe a handful of minutes, but her presence is constantly felt through the sound work. Good and full characters with believable interpersonal relationships, spooky stuff has some creepy moments, tension is well built throughout. I feel like it could have done more to underline the exact nature of the peril towards the end, but otherwise was really pleased with it. Good exploration of themes of race and gender, labour and possession. Solid film.