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‘Bad Living’ Review: A Polished But Depressing Drama of Mean Motherhood and Toxic Femininity

Misery loves company, which may account for Portuguese director João Canijo’s decision to split his angst-ridden hotel-set project into two complementary films. Both were selected for the Berlinale, with the half centered on the hotel guests (“Living Bad”) landing in the Encounters section, and “Bad Living,” which revolves around the hotel staff, taking a main competition slot. It makes reviewing one without reference to the other something of an exercise in shadowboxing, especially when, as in “Bad Living,” the minute observation of its deteriorating female relationships could have used some kind of counterpoint, if only to make an unremittingly bleak, fractious 127 minutes pass a little faster. They may work in hospitality, but the women of “Bad Living” live in a draining, near-permanent state of hostility.

The heartbreak hotel location is perhaps the film’s biggest star. It’s a large, modern building, though not so modern that it doesn’t feel worn around the edges. That impression is reinforced by DP Leonor Teles’ handsome but dark-tinged, slightly grimy photography, which always feels as though the camera is struggling to take in enough light. The complex is carefully maintained, right down to the large outdoor pool into which housekeeper/chef/doggedly loyal factotum Angela (Vera Barreto) is sluicing chlorine as the film opens. Nearby, hotel manager Piedade (Anabela Moreira) rests on a lounger following one of her frequent solo swims.

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Piedade’s gimlet-eyed mother Sara (Rita Blanco) owns the place. Piedade’s prickly daughter Salomé (Madalena Almeida) unexpectedly comes to stay after the death of her father, from whom Piedade was long estranged. The quintet is rounded out by cousin Raquel (Clei Almeida) who works as a maid/waitress, and is in a relationship with Angela, but still has occasional sex with random (male) guests. Sara is cruelly critical of her daughter who in turn is utterly alienated from her daughter. Granddaughter and grandmother, however, get along just fine, partly united by mutual dislike of Piedade: No wonder her nerves are shredded, and her brow etched into a permanent furrow of tension. In this family, it would seem, maternal affection skips a generation.

The hotel is failing, and there is talk of selling, but very little actual action. Not flattered by surface comparisons to TV phenom “The White Lotus,” this is a slow-band-aid-removal of gradually widening fractures, of eavesdroppers lurking in doorways to hear no good of themselves, of rare confrontations, rarer confessions and moments of conviviality that are rarer than either again. As writer-director, Canijo appears to be going for a tragic, Bergmanesque effect — there are a lot of windows and mirrors into which one or other woman can stare pensively — but with such a lack of human warmth, the tragedy never really grips. By the time the worst happens, everyone’s been so miserable and so horrible to each other for so long, it feels almost like a relief.

Not content to let the downward-spiralling relationships speak for themselves, at times the usually impressive craft becomes overbearingly gloomy. Overlapping dialogue makes certain murmured exchanges less than intelligible (non-Portuguese speakers have to speed-read a truncated version in the subtitles). And Teles’ fondness for minimal lighting can go too far: One confessional scene by the pool at night is shot so darkly, and from such an oblique angle, we can hardly tell to whom Raquel is talking. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

The performances are dedicated but given little room to maneuver within their various psychological cages. As both daughter and mother, employee and employer, tormentor and tormented, Piedade is the pivot point through which so much of the film’s unhappy energies flow, and thus only ever seems allowed that one, stricken expression. Costume designer Silvia Siopa, however, does a fine job with Piedade’s wardrobe, which is all autumnal dresses and skirt-and-blouse combos that, like the hotel, look well-made but not exactly fashionable, and seem to smell faintly of mothballs.

It’s very possible that Canijo thinks men are the worst too. Perhaps the male hotel guests briefly glimpsed checking in, or dining in the hotel restaurant, will come in for similarly negative assessment in “Living Bad.” (Very likely, in fact, considering it’s apparently based on plays by Strindberg, not known for his chirpiness about the human condition.) But if so, it makes the decision to stretch out and separate these stories into two films — of over two hours each — even more perplexing, leaving this distaff version open to charges of the kind of sexism that imagines women, when left alone together, inevitably devolve into shrewish, mutually resentful scolds. Of course, combining the films into one would fundamentally alter the depressive DNA of “Bad Living,” because guests always have an ace up their sleeve. They can check out any time they like; these women can never leave.

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