Living Bad switches perspectives by taking the background characters of its sister film Bad Living and introducing them as the main characters.
Living Bad (Viver Mal) is the second part of Portuguese filmmaker João Canijo’s two-film project, following the lives of the guests staying in a sumptuous hotel run by three generations of women of the same family: the protagonists of the first movie, Bad Living. Living Bad doesn’t pick up from where Bad Living left, but rather restarts the whole narrative from the perspective of the first film’s background characters. It impresses me how, just like Bad Living, Living Bad works perfectly as a standalone movie, but not as much as the former does.
This time, the audience is graced with an anthology format that immediately reminded me of the HBO series The White Lotus, not only because of the narrative’s structure but also because of the flawed, irreverent nature of the characters. There’s also something of a cinematic adaptation of R.E.M’s “Imitation of Life” music video in Living Bad: the story goes back and forth, back and forth, following three intersecting storylines over the timespan of two days. In the many scenes by the pool, I could nearly hear the R.E.M. song somewhere in the back of my head.
Anyone who would love to see more of Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness’ first 30 minutes, in which Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), two insolent top models, wander aimlessly poking fun at each other’s insecurities and snob idiosyncrasies, will enjoy the first storyline. It’s centered around Jaime (Nunu Lopes) and Camila (Filipa Areosa), a dysfunctional couple who can’t stand each other with the same intensity they can’t bear to imagine the other with someone else. Through the couple, Canijo manages to conduct a relevant discussion on social media obsession and the terror of having to be available at all times.
The second storyline introduces an outrageous love triangle: Alex (Rafael Morais), a parasitic man obsessed with sex and money, Graça (Lia Carvalho), an indulgent independent woman constantly under the shadow of her oppressive mother, and Elisa (Leonor Silveira), the selfish mother who fuels her daughter with her own frustrations and engages on an affair with Alex. Finally, the third story is yet another bleak tale about maternity, following a mother who controls every aspect of her daughter Julia’s (Leonor Vasconcelos) life. While on holiday, Julia brings her girlfriend Alice (Carolina Amaral) along, a relationship that Julia’s mother doesn’t approve of and tries incessantly to destroy.
Each of the three stories is loosely adapted from August Strindberg plays, and while Canijo seems confident in how well they play together and connect to the primary drama of Bad Living, I didn’t feel the same way. The technical aspects of the film are as sharp as what Bad Living made me expect, if not even better and riskier, aiming at the spectator’s discomfort at all times, yet they aren’t quite in synch with the three parallel stories that often seem to drag aimlessly.
For one thing, the incredible sound design orchestrated by Elsa Ferreira and Tiago Raposinho made all the difference; by overlapping the main dialogue onscreen with the conversations that take place nearby, even including dialogues from Bad Living in the background, the sound was the primary tool in delivering an unsettling atmosphere of claustrophobia.
In addition, Leonor Teles’ sharp cinematography is even more audacious here, constantly breaking the 180-degree rule and gravitating around each room in angles as awkward as the situation the characters find themselves in. However, with the anthology format playing out, the uniformity of Canijo’s approach felt disjointed, making me feel as if I was watching an art gallery change its paintings and exhibits, while the room stayed exactly the same. On the other hand, Bad Living made me feel as if I was entering the painting itself, watching the figures walk in and out of the framed scene.
I was thrilled with the first segment and totally invested in the psyche of such a problematic couple. Their witty remarks and unforgiving humor passed on a feeling of renovation, since I was expecting Living Bad to be something very similar to Bad Living’s family drama, which was all about fears and frustrations that are passed along from one generation to the other. Then, the second segment kicked in with characters too detestable to relate to, yet the love triangle twist caught not only me but the whole theater audience off-guard, evoking a resounding “oh” out of everyone in a pivotal moment.
The last part felt like the longest, which made me think it belonged in the middle. It finished off exactly where it started: not as if it came full circle, it just didn’t move at all. I could picture Canijo’s intention, laying out a never-ending cycle of gaslighting and remorse orchestrated by the controlling mother, yet it lacked the gut punch from Bad Living’s ending, marked by a harrowing tragedy that ties up all the loose ends.
No doubt those who stumble upon Living Bad first will have a much better time than I did, even if they don’t get the brief moments in which both movies intersect. The fact Bad Living and Living Bad coexist and complement each other makes it difficult not to compare them after watching both. At the end of the day, Living Bad isby no means a bad film, especially when it carries on some of Bad Living’s ideas while breaking the bleak silence of its sister film, delivering more dialogues and insights into Portugal’s culture. However, the lack of momentum and its anticlimactic ending leads to a bittersweet taste that lingers on.