The Good Life is a perfect wedding of dynamic characters and subject. Though Eva Mulvad’s delightful study of the Beckmanns—a once-wealthy Danish mother and her middle-aged daughter, Anne Mette, now living together in a small apartment in Portugal with only the elderly woman’s pension as income—is being touted as a modern-day Grey Gardens, that comparison is misleading. Whereas the Maysles were accused of exploitation for training their lens on a squalor-dwelling, mother-daughter duo whose sanity could be called into question, these snappy dames, whose back-and-forth banter has the comedic timing of a vaudeville act, are undeniably of sound minds—which makes their fall into hard times all the more poignant.
“The newly rich are doing well, but we old rich are the new poor,” announces the 56-year-old Anne Mette, who also allows that “Work is still taboo for me…I’d rather die than work.” (“True,” her wearily resigned mother affirms.) Even so, Anne Mette is a hustler par excellence, spending her days borrowing and bargaining when she’s not window-shopping like a reverse version of Holly Golightly and daydreaming about her fairy-tale childhood. “I’d love to live here—to live in the past,” she says on a visit to their former mansion. A teenage girl in an aging woman’s body (“You want me to prostitute myself?” she challenges when her mom pressures her to find a job, to which her mother deadpans, “You’re too old”), Anne, with her designer jeans and stylish sunglasses, buys wine at the grocery store but forgets the toilet paper. When she does have money she is “tempted” to use it for food but decides to get her car back from the repair shop instead. Of course, after retrieving the auto she realizes she now doesn’t have enough left over for gas.
“I was raised to inherit money,” Anne Mette explains, both as an excuse for her lack of frugality and as a way of placing the blame squarely on her long-suffering mother and deceased father. Between the elegiac classical music and retro footage of their former luxury, a respectful portrait emerges of two whip-smart women, one in denial and still furious at having not been raised to be independent, the other clearheaded and wanting nothing more than for her daughter to finally grow up and take responsibility for her own life. Early on in Mulvad’s doc, the senior Mette predicts that their lives will play out like a Greek tragedy—which allows for tension to build with every subsequent frame. She notes that they’ve gone from one extreme to the other and now “need to find the middle of the road.” And in a way they do. “I have a different relationship with them now,” Anne Mette says about the lower classes she has to deal with at a government employment office—as opposed to “when they were servants.”
By addressing issues such as growing up and aging, losing everything and having to start over (i.e. what makes us all mortal), this love-hate relationship between a mother and daughter, in which unhappiness feeds unhappiness, becomes a heartbreakingly universal tale. The too-good-to-be-true dialogue and gorgeous shots of Portugal are only there to soften The Good Life‘s blow.