Hilda (Nunca he tenido una Hilda)

Mexico (2014) Dir. Andres Clariond

You know what they say about people with money – they might be able to buy a big house and flashy cars but they can’t buy class. It’s nice to have a healthy bank balance but being a decent human being should always be our first priority. Unfortunately, this is why we have inequality in the world.

Susana Le Marchand (Verónica Langer) is a wealthy grandmother waiting for her poet son Beto (David Gaitán) to return from the US with his wife Jane (Anna Cetti) and their baby son. A nanny is needed for her grandson but no-one is suitable, until a knitted gift from the wife of her gardener Francisco (Eduardo Mendizábal), to whom she lent the money to buy a house, impresses Susana enough to offer her the job.

Aware of the implications of refusing, Hilda (Adriana Paz) reluctantly puts her own young children in day care (at Susana’s expense) to take the role, but Susana becomes oddly infatuated with Hilda. With her own husband (Fernando Becerril) ignoring her as he woos an influential US business partner, Susana pours all her attention onto Hilda with things getting rather uncomfortable.

The original Spanish title of this film is Nunca he tenido una Hilda, translating to I’ve Never Had an Hilda, which sounds enigmatic and smutty at the same time but definitely isn’t the latter. Based on a one-act play by French-Senegalese writer Marie Ndiaye, Hilda is a satire on modern slavery within the class system which Andres Clariond has not only relocated to Mexico but also expanded on Ndiaye’s compact story.

In doing so, the entire class war between the haves and the have nots is further probed, along with racism and underhand dealings of big business. Arguably the most significant change in Clariond’s script is Hilda’s presence, whereas in the original play she is merely a point of reference around which the drama builds. 

Returning briefly to the full title, it refers to the novelty of Susana having a Hilda under her employ for the first time as opposed to the numerous Marias and Jaunitas that have previously served under her. We glean from this the turnover of female staff in chez Le Marchand is very high which is might down to Susana’s as an employer, but at least she knows the names of her staff.

Mr. Le Marchand is apparently less considerate to his staff. During an inspection of his factory ahead of the US partner’s visit, he insists all the “ugly” ethnic workers are hidden from view as he doesn’t want the American to see the sort of face that delivers his pizza to him back home!

Quite how the quality of the knitted cardigan was enough to inspire Susana to offer Hilda the job is left to whimsy but as the film progresses it becomes apparent Susana isn’t playing with the full orchestra. Possibly a symptom of being a kept woman with servants and her beck and call, this would have left the younger Susana aghast.

Back in the 60’s Susana was a radical protestor, and as an alum of her university, the current students ask to feature her in a film about the protests of ’68. At first she isn’t interested as that was a lifetime ago which her husband wants forgotten, but Hilda’s arrival curiously reignites many dormant fires within Susana and she agrees to be filmed by the liberal minded teens, much to her capitalist husband’s disdain.

This is a subplot that runs throughout the film, along with Beto striving to become a published poet. His American influenced romantic verses are rejected, as social issues are what sell these days. This leads to Beto being kidnapped but with the drama resolved rather quickly to have any great impact on the story, it feels like the same result could have been achieved another way.

But this might be for the better as this clashes rather starkly against the slow building psychological chills of Susana’s obsession with Hilda. Hard working and polite, Hilda keeps to herself, only taking the job because of her financial obligation to Susana, which upsets Susana who wants Hilda to feel like “part of the family”. No need to make your own joke up here, this is part of the underlining satire driving the script, which ranges from the subtle to the outrageous but always feels pointed.

Gradually, Hilda becomes Susana’s favourite, tactfully ensuring Hilda agrees to stay on at weekends at the expense of seeing her own children. Hilda barely spends time with the baby grandson, the whole point of her hiring, to be Susana’s playmate; instead of being reasonable when Francisco asks for his wife to come home, Susana has him banned from the grounds and keeps Hilda locked up inside.

I won’t spoil the ending but there is no horrific turn of events or bloody final showdown between Susana and Hilda to end this disturbing ride but there is a turning point that causes her reign of tyranny to implode which is deeply embarrassing instead. As a satire and not a horror film, or even a psychological thriller, that would be one step too far in expecting the audience to accept what is already a bizarre scenario, but Clariond’s care in avoiding big bang climax sits well with the satirical nature of the film.

Providing equal weight in keeping this quirky grounded within the realms of credibility is the performance from veteran Verónica Langer, her essaying of Susan’s gradual mental unravelling is a compelling study of the effects of the ennui that succumbs the nouveau riche. Adriana Paz is a great foil as Hilda, a figure of strength, resilience, patience, and grace, presented as a blank slate to represent the oppressed and enslaved minorities.

The dark humour and satirical intent stands out clearly in Hilda, but its 89-minute run time precludes the subplots from gaining traction and depth. Otherwise a fine, caustically entertaining sprint to sink your teeth into.