From its use of static takes, to structuring a familial drama around class conflict, to homing in on a family’s swimming pool as its central metaphor, The Second Mother borrows shamelessly from La Ciénaga. Writer-director Anna Muylaert’s only comprehensive deviation from Lucrecia Martel’s film, in terms of plot, is its shift to the predominant perspective of a housemaid rather than the bourgeois family she cares for. The Second Mother also eases the tone to make its events less caustic and bruising to those involved, meaning the film’s initial, impending sense of dread is eventually discarded in favor of peppier resolutions, even though its economic concerns haven’t been so much resolved as temporarily brushed aside to provide an illusory, optimistic capper. Instead of diving into the deep end like La Ciénaga with fine-tuned, ensemble characterizations and clenched-fist resolve regarding legacies of racism and economic inequality, it cautiously treads water, uncertain if it should take the plunge.
The film’s equivocating isn’t initially apparent; an opening shot of a sunny, nearly picturesque but abandoned swimming pool neatly encapsulates the stakes of upper-middle-class privilege by revealing an ugly wastefulness beneath this cheery veneer. When an infant runs through the frame, Muylaert immediately establishes how such pleasures aren’t won, but inherited by birthright and dependent on one’s arbitrary emergence from the womb. As an existential emblem it’s substantial, but the film’s static takes steadily decline from this level of suggestive, uncertain terms to more literal gestures of class divide and reunification. Inside the home, Val (Regina Casé) is the maid for a well-to-do São Paolo family; during an early scene, she wonders aloud why someone would simply place an empty ice tray back in the freezer without refilling it first. She’s speaking to Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the teenage son of Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) and Bárbara (Karine Teles), though Val clearly tends to his daily needs more than either of his parents. In the film’s most daring moments, Fabinho crawls into bed with Val on a regular basis, to have his hair stroked and body held tight. Though there’s nothing explicitly sexual between the two, Muylaert allows the possibility to roam throughout.
In effect, that lack of explicitness damns The Second Mother, as character relations are hinted at and even primed for confrontation, but without payoff or meaningful conclusion. The bulk of these letdowns involve Jéssica (Camila Márdila), Val’s daughter, who arrives in pursuit of a nearby architecture degree. She draws the passive-aggressive ire of Bárbara, who stamps around the home with a forced smile practically plastered to her already false, done-up, perhaps literally plastic face. On the contrary, Dr. Carlos is much more congenial and unassuming, often sporting an unkempt beard and well-worn T-shirt, but he’s got more than a passing interest in Jéssica, as he attempts to seduce her while pointing out the city skyline. Muylaert plays excellent tiptoe with character relations and pent-up desires, but the film’s third act drowns in its own hesitations and second-guessed narrative resolutions. Instead of honing the film’s conflicting impulses and bringing them to a head, tension dissolves when a character unconvincingly disappears for a significant length of time, relieving Muylaert from having to sort out all of the messiness. When that character ultimately reappears, it’s in service of a conventional melodramatic resolution, leaving The Second Mother a potent, but curiously unfinished examination of filial anxieties.