‘You and Me’ (‘Tu y yo’): Cartagena Review

Courtesy of Faula Films
Slow but suggestive cinema about power relations and loneliness

This intimate documentary record of the relationship between a mistress and her maid is has been picking up awards on the Latin American festival circuit, among them a Cartagena Special Jury Prize

“It’s you and me together, I’m always on your side,” sang Hannah Montana, aka Miley Cyrus, but life isn’t so pop-simple for the protagonists of You and Me. This co-directed, lightly fictionalized study of the with-or-without-you relationship between a frankly grumpy 70 year-old and her patient maid in their small Santo Domingo apartment is slow-burning, at times to the point of going out altogether.

But those prepared to settle into its languid rhythm, which precisely renders that of its subjects’ days, will find themselves rewarded by a study of subtle, shifting power relations between two people locked together, neither quite sure why they’re on the other’s side. The slowness and subtlety of You and Me looks best-suited to festivals with a political or feminist slant.

We first meet Aridia (Paula Lebron) putting up a flower basket as her unnamed mistress (Francisca Perez de Sosa) barks out orders at her. Then they sit together watching soap operas, united by their fantasies of escape to a more interesting, more passionate world (a fantasy the viewer starts to share after about half an hour). Then they are bickering in the kitchen about some twine which Aridia has failed to order correctly. And on it goes.

The servant-mistress relationship has come in for some heavy scrutiny in recent years in, for example Abner Benaim’s punchy, ironical docu Maids and Bosses and Sebastian Silva’s multiple prize-winning The Maid. Both are livelier than You and Me, and both say much the same thing, though without the nuance or the realism, which here too often translates into shots of interminable length: You and Me is evoking plenty, it’s true, but the burden of most of the interpretive work in this largely silent film -- the directors are doing direct cinema, a frustratingly common approach in recent Latin American docus -- falls squarely on the shoulders of the viewer.

Here at the dog-end of colonial slavery, it’s all about the routines, the filling-up of claustrophobic dead days with needless tasks, performed by two people thrown together for historical reasons they know nothing of, tied together by unmentioned economic arrangements. One thoughtlessly exercises power over the other, the other thoughtlessly submits to it. Neither ever verbalizes any doubts they may have. At one point, Aridia ups and leaves, but she soon returns and, thank God, the action moves outside.

There is a palpable sadness at the heart of these women's relationships. Despite her animated telephone conversations, it’s clear that the mistress has nobody closer to her than Aridia. Aridia’s phone calls home break up, signaling her isolation from her family and her dependence on her boss. When she does try to talk to her mistress about something more intimate, about a dream she’s had, her mistress cuts Aridia off: she has transgressed the limits appropriate to their relationship.

Lighter moments are sprinkled onto the tedium. There are some deliciously surreal dialogues (“Donald got the nail out of his legs” and “Aunt always had the meat seasoned by eight” are two choice extracts dropped from the mistress’s lips). The audience may well end up warming to these two lonely women: though the ignorant, offensive Mistress does make it hard. Some might long for the younger, bulkier Aridia, whose incompetence at performing basic tasks is also the subject of some gentle humor, to give the Mistress a quick, corrective slap. But Aridia won’t do that, which is of course the whole point.

The photography is functional, with Estrada apparently setting up the camera simply to record. A couple of times, images of orchids against the sky punctuate the relentless documenting of the day to day, with all its hidden meanings.

Production company: Faula Films
Cast: Paula Lebron, Francisca Perez de Sosa
Directors, screenwriters: Natalia Cabral, Oriol Estrada
Producer: Natalia Cabral
Photography, editor: Oriol Estrada
Sales: Faula Films

No rating, 87 minutes