The Brazilian Oprah, Regina Casé, wasn’t willing to smoke cigarettes for “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but was happy to take on the juicy role of Val, a live-in domestic in São Paulo whose life is thrown into disarray when her grown daughter Jessica arrives from Val’s hometown to study for her college entrance exams. The understood boundaries that rule Val’s life with her employer Bárbara (Karine Teles) don’t apply to this vibrant, smart young woman, whose questions bring everything into clearer focus. Suddenly Val has to give precedence to her relationship with her own daughter.
Muylaert originally presented the film as a work-in-progress at Locarno; it went on to win prizes at both Sundance and Berlin, and looks like the obvious choice for this year’s Oscar submission from Brazil.
In a conversation with Screen’s Michael Rosser at the Sarajevo Film Festival, where the film played well to audiences on opening night, Muylaert explained how being a successful woman has weighed on her. She lives in Palaty, a small town near Rio, and took a seven-year directing hiatus between her first and second films to raise her own children, unlike the women in “The Second Mother.”
Muylaert remembers in school being asked to draw her family. “‘Should I draw the maid?’ ‘Whatever you want.’ I didn’t know if I could draw her, I knew the maid was in the room, but was not supposed to be in the picture, this film is that drawing somehow.” She was writing two film scripts at once, “The Second Mother” and “Smoke,” which got financed first. “It was easy,” she said. “I was not satisfied with that film, it was a bigger success than the first. For my third film and ‘Second Mother,’ [raising financing] was really difficult. Maybe it will be easier now.”
The filmmaker has found that “The Second Mother” has been “much more difficult for men to accept,” she said. “As a successful woman, I feel like Jessica, I am sitting at a table that women not are supposed to sit. I shouldn’t cross that door. I feel they don’t know what to do with me, because the film has been recognized abroad. It was easier before.”
“I have been treated like second class citizen,” she continued, “which was very painful to me, even in a good position as I am today. My film is successful, even then, maybe because of that, I am being treated like a dog. This is something we should be aware of in the 21st century. This is not possible… Maybe it’s time to realize from where does sexism come, it’s sad. It’s not time for that any more.”
The success of the film has been “such a struggle,” added Muylaert, “that if do a new film it will have to be about sexism. This is what has been really hurting me. The moment a film gets a certain level of success, men feel disturbed. They try to take me out of the room. This has been hurting me. I’ve been working on this film for 20 years and I don’t deserve to be asked to leave the room, it hurts. I’d like to find a way to make sexism clear on the screen so that men can see how shameful and stupid that is, so we shouldn’t do that anymore.”
The director had wanted to work with TV and film star Casé, who has “big charisma, is intelligent,” she said, ever since she saw “Me You and Them.” But when the time finally time to make “The Second Mother,” “six months before the shooting the story was completely different,” she said, “it was the same characters and house and plot, but Jessica was different, she came to São Paulo to become a hairdresser and in the end became a nanny again. I was not happy with that. I wanted to change it, make it something more hopeful, but not a false happy ending, or have her become a famous salsa singer or marry the millionaire, too cliche.”
So in July 2013 Muylaert locked herself in, didn’t sleep, read books: “‘My god! I have to say something new!’ One day the education idea came to me. She has education. That is the way, it’s not riches or money, it’s citizenship. I sent the new script to Regina, she loved it. ‘Let’s shoot it.'”
“I tried to portray people,” she told Rosser. “I’m looking for interesting people. My actors are not what you call beautiful, but in the end you fall in love with them.” Muylaert cast young theater actress Camila Márdila as Jessica. She initially wanted her to be darker-skinned, she told me at a festival dinner, but realized that she was the only actress who understood that she didn’t have to make people like her. So she got the role.
“Val commits the biggest mistake, she leaves her daughter for 10 years,” said Muylaert. “She pays the higher price, is the one we love most. Dona Bárbara is the most difficult character. She portrays a Brazilian modern rich woman, yes, not a stereotype… She’d like to be nice but loses control. She’s not bad, she is the most fragile character, the most difficult to direct and compose and edit, so as not to make her a witch.”
When the woman president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff invited 50 women film directors to dinner at the palace, they screened “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” She told them, said Muylaert, “‘You are women. The story has always been told by men. Think about that. When you see an older woman, men say, this woman is old, this one is young. Maybe for women it’s different, tell the story. The story told by the powerful is men.'” UPDATE: According to the film’s German distributor, Rousseff talked up the film to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has ordered a Blu-ray.
“The Second Mother,” said Muylaert, “is a very feminine story. It’s about relationships and power and education. When people ask me, ‘do women direct differently than men?’ That changes from person to person. I believe in a feminine way of looking and a masculine way. Almodovar is very feminine, Woody Allen has a feminine look. Bigelow she has a masculine look. It doesn’t matter who’s directing, man or woman, but how you look.”
The filmmaker shot the movie inside a power grid of where the domestic is allowed to be and where she is not, keeping the camera at a distance. “I felt this film would be like a security camera, that you would understand the people in the space,” she said. “I didn’t want closeups. I wanted the space –like a kitchen door, the kitchen where real life is going, for someone to just see pieces. The house is not a character, it’s important to understand the relationships between the characters.”
What’s next: She’s already shot a new film that she is editing for November release in Brazil, called “There is Only One Mother,” the story of a transgender teen who has to change his name, identity and family, who reject him. “So there’s a new issue coming up,” she said. “I’m 50 and I feel as young as I ever felt.”