Waiting in the lobby for a sparsely attended but vocally appreciative screening of Good Madam at this year’s Overlook Film Fest, I was confronted with a phenomenon that consistently baffles me at festivals: Why do huge crowds always line up for local premieres of big-budget movies that will play in multiplexes nation-wide in a week or two when there’s so much smaller, weirder stuff with no distribution playing on other nearby screens? The crowds swarming to get a slightly early look at the Scott Derrickson chiller The Black Phone was absurdly disproportionate to my Good Madam crowd, despite the likelihood of the latter film screening at even indie venues like Zeitgeist or The Broad in the next few months being relatively thin. Is it really all that important to see a new, robustly budgeted movie “first”, before it leaks out to the unwashed masses?
By the end of Good Madam, my bafflement at that impulse did soften a bit. I can at least relate to the urge to see a new movie with fresh eyes, unclouded by the oncoming storm clouds of Opinions on the Internet. Specifically, I wish I could have seen Good Madam when it first premiered at TIFF in 2021. The film is just as emotionally potent & politically relevant nine months later, but since that premiere it’s been met with a spiritual competitor in the 2022 Sundance selection (and Grand Jury Prize winner) Nanny. Both Good Madam & Nanny happen to revisit Ousmane Sembène’s arthouse classic Black Girl through a supernatural horror lens, so it’s now impossible to consider Good Madam in isolation while that unexpected sister film breathes down its neck. I’m curious to compare Good Madam to Nanny once they both make their way into the general public, but I also would have loved to experience Good Madam undistracted from the comparison. I would have loved to catch it early at TIFF.
Considered on its own, Good Madam is perfectly chilling & sharply political, pushing past an easy metaphor about a South African home being haunted by apartheid to dig into some surprisingly complex, heartbreaking familial drama. Our heroine in distress is a single mother mourning the recent loss of the grandmother who raised her and the subsequent loss of her grandmother’s home. Desperate, she moves in with her birth mother, a lifelong domestic worker who occupies small, undecorated rooms in an extravagant, empty house owned by her white employer. The creeping dread that torments them in that home is expressed in both physical & metaphorical terms: ghosts of workers & pets who died on-site decades ago; the visual absence of the white, bedridden employer; ominous shots of the woods behind the home; etc. It all swirls into one heartbreaking tale of how lifelong domestic service work can steal Black laborers away from their real families, a curse that’s often passed down from generation to generation with little hope to break the cycle.
Of course, even as a pair of recent parallel thinkers, Good Madam & Nanny do not exist in a vacuum. There are plenty recent, vibrant supernatural horror films that take satirical aim at the lingering curse of colonialism & the African diaspora. Good Madam recalls titles like His House, I Am Not a Witch, and Zombi Child just as much as it resembles Black Girl. It even has aesthetic ties to the modern American classic Get Out, especially in the way the white employer’s clanging service bell recalls the chilling teacup scrapes of Catherine Keener’s hypnotism technique. The existence of Nanny does not detract from Good Madam’s eerie dark magic in any way. Part of the fun & tradition of genre films is seeing how different titles communicate with & mutate off each other. I just wish I could have seen the former film without knowing the latter exists, which I suppose isn’t all that different from Ethan Hawke superfans wanting to see The Black Phone before it sparks a proper Discourse.