The Cleaning Lady
This review contains mild spoilers. They won’t ruin your enjoyment or the intention of the film but I always suggest going in to a thriller blind. Up to you though.
At the center of new, indie thriller The Cleaning Lady is an all-too-real portrayal of a lonely person. Star and Co-Writer Alexis Kendra plays Alice, a physical therapist and beautician, a woman who is conflicted about the affair she is having with a married man. The affair touches every part of her life. She loves him but she knows its wrong, her only friends, it seems, are part of a relationship/sexual help group that she, presumably, only joined to get out or get over him and she smokes because of him, or at least that’s her excuse. She internally beats herself up over her actions, she lets others push her around and influence her opinions on the subject and, ultimately, it leads her into a weird “friendship” with a soft spoken and physically scarred woman, the handy-person for the apartment block she lives and works in, and who Alice then takes on as a cleaner twice a week. Outside of trips to the gym, this is Alice’s life - her group, her work and the cycle of a damaging relationship going nowhere.
The first part of the film shows Alice struggling to shut Michael (Stelio Savante), her lover, out of her life so she can try and move on, predicated on her own disenchantment and the advice of her group friend/sponsor and, later, the titular Cleaning Lady, Shelly (Rachel Alig).
Watching it, I was hugely empathetic towards Alice. Everyone else, including the filmmakers I guess, were judgmental of her. Where I saw a lonely person struggling to inhibit her actions because of her intrinsically decent nature and realisation that it wasn’t leading anywhere good, everyone else seemed to see a weak woman, sabotaging her existence for the sake of sex.
I found this depiction very realistic at first. People are judgmental, people don’t emapthise and people do have opinions based on soap opera morality. Yes they mean well, yes they think they’re just trying to help but ultimately they’re not listening, they’re not reading between the lines and, in turn, we (in this case Alice) don’t express ourselves openly and correctly and, instead, beat ourselves up and try and randomly follow their advice, knowing we’re going to fall.
The world was destroyed by inspirational posters and self help books and the smug idiots that espouse their blind, simple philosophy. The world is messy, complicated, emotional and filled with the allure of chemistry and the thrill of the forbidden.
There is a really good movie, even a horror/thriller movie to be made about this. Watching the first 50 minutes of The Cleaning Lady, I hoped this would be it. Sadly, it’s not. It’s a film about a physically and deeply emotionally scarred, former horrendous abuse victim who is befriended by a well meaning, lonely woman in a difficult situation and who, in the predictable turn horror/thrillers must take because… erm… reasons… turns out to be an absolute psychopath. The same old “sex is bad and must be punished by an abused psycho with a confused sense of morals and justice” tale we’ve seen before in various incarnations. Druggings, kidnappings and torture ensue and then the film ends. The central thesis of our demented cleaning lady seems to be - how dare you have this perfect life, this perfect face and throw it away on a married man and… erm… how dare you smoke?
To be fair to the film, it is also a movie about control. Everybody is trying to control Alice, from her stalker/lover Michael to her new, deranged friend and Alice is, ultimately, trying to control herself. That’s as far as it gets though, control. There is no redemption or realisation for Alice. Not that there needs to be, exactly, and I have no problem with unhappy or ambiguous endings but, unfortunately, in the case of this film, it feels like the filmmakers just get to a certain point and then stop the film at the 90 minute mark. I had to rewind the film by 6 minutes, watch the closing moments again and make sure I hadn’t missed anything. With hindsight and a little thought it does work a little better as an ending when you see the theme as control - and not obsession as I’ve read elsewhere - but it feels unresolved and, initially, like a mistake. That’s maybe a conception versus execution issue.
The film has some really creepy ideas contained in it as well. One, that, I assume, is to show how Shelly, the cleaning lady, wants Alice’s life, where she drugs Alice, while she sleeps, and takes a mold of her face, steals her jewelry and at her Texas Chainsaw remake like hideout in the woods, dresses up as Alice and fantasises about being her. Another, during a visceral and disturbing scene (which I won’t spoil here), where Shelly forces Alice to make an impossible choice when it comes to Michael. The design, make-up and execution of Shelly’s look and presence in the film is menacing and unnerving too, ably assisted by Rachel Alig’s quiet, considered performance.
It is also very well made, with a strong sense of pacing and suspense, it is well written with fleshed out characters and situations and, for the most part, well acted. It is shot and designed with an interesting eye on colour, specifically the blues and yellows in Alice’s life, both in her apartment and her clothes. Not sure what they mean but they seemed ever present. Also the flashbacks to Shelly’s horrible and abusive upbringing have a bright, idealised 1950s and dollhouse color scheme. Dollhouses, that’s another theme that runs through the film but I am not sure why - something to do with both escape, confinement and an idealised version of life maybe? - most likely it’s the theme of control again.
It is clear from the “more I think about it the more there is to say” aspect of this review is that thoughts and ideas have been poured into The Cleaning Lady but what, unfortunately, doesn’t elevate it beyond the stream of straight to video horror/thrillers on the market is the decision to play it as The Cable Guy meets Single White Female meets a Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake/reboot/sequel. The reliance on familiar tropes smothers the sparks of originality that are there to find and I am not sure that the audience for a film like this is going to think about it as much as I have here - but there I go being judgmental again.
This is the filmmakers’ (Director Jon Knautz and Writer Alexis Kendra) second feature and I haven’t seen Goddess of Love, which, from the IMDB description seems to play with same themes of love, sex, obsession and control - All good themes. All thematically strong - and based on The Cleaning Lady I would take a look at Goddess of Love and I will be interested to watch their next feature too, because I feel that filmmakers working in genre movies, who seem to be genuinely trying to explore ideas, should be allowed to continue. I’d just like to see those ideas get centre stage and less falling back on genre tropes - but I am also aware how distribution and business demand a certain level of exploitation thrills in their films.
Give it a look yourself and let me know what you think when it is available On Demand, Digital HD and DVD June 4, 2019