A mother and daughter share a small flat in Portugal. The mother is 83, her daughter is 56. Both have been used to living in luxury on inherited wealth, but when Eva Mulvad's "The Good Life" opens that's all in the past. The money is gone and all they have to live on now is the mother's minimal pension.
"I was always fascinated by people who live in a kind of time warp, people whose lives are a bit out of whack with everyone else's. Such people can challenge our perception of normality."
As the film unfolds, we get an inkling that their past holds a lot of good stories. What happened to the money? Why couldn't the mother's husband see to their future? As in Mulvad's "Enemies of Happiness", about Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman running for parliament, which won the Silver Wolf at IDFA in 2006, the scene-driven present is what counts. We look in on mother and daughter as they cope with situations in the here and now, we listen to their mutual recriminations and hear how they intend to move on.
Little by little, we get to piece together a few of the historical elements and the story comes to be about a lot more than financial calamity. After all, as parents, don't you have a duty to teach your children to take responsibility for their own lives, even though they happen to be wealthy? Conversely, do children have a duty to take responsibility for their own lives, no matter how they are raised? And what does "taking responsibility" even mean?
As Mulvad sees it, a lot of the attraction of the film's story was having the questions emerge from the material as it unfolds. Her premise was to make a chamber play about two people who immediately fascinated her three years ago when she happened to listen to a radio montage entitled "Downfall on First Class".
"When I heard the two women on the radio I was totally sucked in," she says. "I just had to stay in my car and listen until the show was over, because these two compelling and unusual characters prompted so many thoughts about big questions like, What makes us happy? Or, What are the important things in life? I was convinced it would be interesting to meet them on film. I was always fascinated by people who live in a kind of time warp, people whose lives are a bit out of whack with everyone else's. Such people can challenge our perception of normality. There was a concrete drama here about the relationship between a mother and daughter, but also an even bigger drama between the life they had before and the life they are living now."
Poetic Family Saga
Mulvad got in touch with the journalist who did the montage and together they left for Portugal to present the idea of making a film. One source of inspiration for Mulvad was the Maysles brothers' 1975 classic "Grey Gardens", a poetic film about a formerly wealthy mother and daughter stranded together in a ramshackle beach-front mansion in posh East Hampton, New York. Mulvad was attracted by the idea of doing a lyrical chamber play, where the filmmaker could never be sure what twists and turns the story would take and with no dramaturgical deadline.
"The film was shot over three years, on numerous visits to Portugal, and it was allowed to evolve a lot in the process. I was always fascinated by family sagas, Thomas Mann stories like "Buddenbrooks", and the things that novels can do. I wanted the film to have a kind of poetic, novelistic level, but I only gradually figured out how to do that and what the core of these two women's story was," Mulvad says.
"The main challenge, as the film progressed, was how to turn everyday life into scenes. I always work in scenes, and in the present, so it was important to me to communicate interesting things about the past through the chamber play that is unfolding before our eyes," Mulvad says. She points out that her colleagues at Danish Documentary – the directors Phie Ambo, Pernille Rose Grønkjær and Mikala Krogh, plus her producer Sigrid Dyekjær – were important sparring partners in the process of cutting to the core of the film. Moreover, Adam Nielsen, the editor who has cut several of Mulvad's films with her, was an important collaborator in picking the cream of the footage.
A Question of Status
Focusing on two women from an upper-class background, "The Good Life" paints a portrait of decadence rarely seen in documentary film, where directors often look to the lower social strata.
"I'm from a middle-class background and a lot of the fascination for me definitely was the element of grandeur and pride, which is fun to explore. There is almost a fairytale-feel to their fate – down to the way they talk or their unconditional belief that getting a job is out of the question – that made me reflect on certain things in my own life and my own culture," the director says.
In general, there aren't a lot of film portraits of the upper classes, probably because they insist on more control and stand on ceremony rather than airing their dirty laundry. But I was met with a lot of trust throughout. Also, things like the daughter not really caring what anyone thinks made it a lot easier for me. This mother and daughter are not like most people, which is one reason why it's so interesting to use their story to make us think about our own more ordinary lives."
As she went along, Mulvad kept discovering new aspects of the story. Meanwhile, part of the challenge was staying confident that a small story about two women would hold big themes and big drama.
"Of course it's challenging to take such an open approach to the story you're telling, as compared with doing a story like "Enemies of Happiness" about an obvious heroine working towards a deadline in the form of an election. But that's one of the fun things about working in documentary film: the incomputability of real life. You can apply your skills to orchestrating real life, but it still ends up in surprising and unpredictable places," Mulvad adds with a satisfied smile.