In Carl Reiner’s noir mashup Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, the merest mention of the phrase ‘cleaning woman’ is enough to trigger an extreme post-traumatic response in private dick Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin), sending him into a violent rage. Who knows how old Rigby would have reacted to Jon Knautz’s latest film The Cleaning Lady, expanded from his 2016 short of the same name – but it may well make viewers more anxious about the strangers that moneyed homeowners allow into their intimate spaces. It is also a film where trauma is more than skin deep.
Alice (Alexis Kendra) appears – at least from the perspective of someone on the outside looking in – to be ‘perfect’. Living in a large apartment, wealthy from pampering other, even wealthier women with face masks and cosmetic makeovers, sporting a body buffed by regular private pilates sessions, she looks, as Shelly (Rachel Alig) observes, ‘like Barbie’. In fact there are cracks subtly disfiguring the immaculate veneer of Alice’s life. She is – in a callback to Goddess Of Love, the previous erotomania-themed film that Kendra co-wrote with Knautz – a ‘love addict’, attending a recovery problem to help wean her off her married lover Michael (Stelio Savante). Yet this is very much a first-world problem compared to those of Shelly, Alice’s painfully shy and decidedly odd new house cleaner whose severe facial burns are just the frontispiece for a very damaged interior.
The Cleaning Lady is essentially a bunny boiler movie – a fact advertised fright from the opening scene in which Shelly uses a kitchen mixer to blend live rats into a bloody pulp. When Alice, trying to distract herself from Michael, opportunistically invites Shelly for dinner, a strange, largely one-sided relationship develops between them. Shelly spies on, and steals from, her employer, coveting a life of affluence and beauty and privilege from which she will always be debarred. Shelly wants a lover, a daughter, a playmate – and as we see more and more of her disturbing, intrusive behaviours, we are also shown flashbacks to her deeply toxic relationship with her mother (JoAnne McGrath). These childhood scenes raise sympathy and alarm in equal measure, feeding the film’s tensions as we gain insight into both the terrible things that Shelly has suffered, and into the making of a fragile yet determined monster more than capable of scarring others to fulfil her errant fantasies.
Laden from the start with a sense of inevitable doom, The Cleaning Lady dolls itself up in increasingly agonising suspense, as we follow Shelly down her perverse path while trying to work out precisely what it is that she wants from Alice. The answer to that question is deferred until the film’s final, haunting image – an image, well worth the wait, of social aspiration, appropriation and exclusion that reveals a nightmarishly idealised model of a home, as clean and perfect as can be.
The Cleaning Lady was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest.