Vague Visages’ Housekeeping for Beginners review contains minor spoilers. Goran Stolevski’s 2023 movie features Anamaria Marinca, Aswan Reid and Deborah Mailman. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Goran Stolevski has now released three features in less than two years, showing himself as a finely talented director, adept at a range of styles. If one looked at the Australian-Macedonian filmmaker’s feature debut You Won’t Be Alone (2022) — a melding of medieval folk horror and Nicolas Roeg-esque elliptical editing in the Macedonian mountains — and predicted he’d follow that up with a raw LGBT+-focused drama set in modern-day Skopje, with the steamy romance drama Of An Age (2022) inbetween, then you’d be an impressive clairvoyant.
Just as remarkable is the creative freedom that Stolevski has been allowed in just the first few years of his career, highlighting a freewheeling, semi-improvisatory style that allows his films to maintain momentum, even as plotlines run ragged. Housekeeping for Beginners is exactly that — raw, chaotic and melodramatic, but also loads of fun too.
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Housekeeping for Beginners’ plot provides an opportunity to explore various lines of thought regarding sexuality, familial relationships and ethnic identity in modern-day Macedonia. Two women, Dita and Suada (Anamaria Marinca and Alina Serban, respectively), live as a couple in a suburban home somewhere in Skopje with Serban’s daughters Mia (Dzada Selim) and Vanesa (Mia Mustafa), whilst a middle-aged gay man (Vladimir Tintor as Toni) essentially acts as a de-facto cover for Dita, allowed to stay in the house rent-free and bring young men home in exchange for appearing as “the man of the house.”
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Early on, though, it’s clear that Vanesa is seriously ill, with one of her dying wishes being to see Toni take legal ownership of her daughters. Why? Her surname is Selimi, a common Roma surname. His is Acevski, a traditional upstanding Macedonian surname. Having witnessed the ignorant treatment of Romani people by doctors first-hand and robbed of education during her own upbringing, Vanesa sees an opportunity to game the system as her health declines.
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Much of the thematic and dramatic movement of Housekeeping for Beginners comes from questions of identity, be they sexual or ethnic, and in particular how visible or performative these questions are. That question of visibility is most obvious in how Stolevski handles the ethnicity of his characters. Romani people are a highly racialized minority in the Balkans, often treated as second-class citizens, given minimal rights and left to their own ends in poverty. Regional (and cinematic) stereotypes characterize Roma people most often as thieves, low-level criminals and itinerant musicians, yet none of Housekeeping for Beginners’ Roma characters fall into these traps.
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To put it bluntly, for those unaware, the Roma people arrived as nomads from somewhere on the Indian subcontinent, which in turn means the majority white populace of the Balkans can more easily target them for ostracization, in a marked contrast to Dita who, as an Albanian (Albanians make up around a quarter of the country’s population) can “pass” more easily amongst Macedonians. Questions of visibility are further complicated by the family’s shift to using the Acevski surname, which in turn gives the orphaned Roma children access into Macedonian spaces, such as a bourgeois family dinner with Dita’s work colleagues. These spaces are also deeply heteronormative, with the men dictating conversation around sport and women’s looks. Attempts to reconnect with the wider Roma family branch for Mia and Vanesa prove complicated: visiting Šutka (a town near Skopje with a majority Roma population, and considered a major cultural center for Romanis) seems alien to them, having grown up in a reasonably well-off, spacious Skopje home. Ethnicity in the former Yugoslavia remains one of the major questions for those living there today; however, it’s not about individuality but rather perception — and one has remarkably little agency over that.
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These strands of performativity, identity, visibilty and agency are again repeated in Stolevski’s handling of sexual identity in Housekeeping for Beginners, which tends to be less immediately “visible” than race. The characters are, within the confines of the safe domestic space, sexually liberated as far as preferences and partners go. It is outside of this space that questions and anxieties arise; a police call-out leads to the family temporarily having to act “straight” for the officers, enacting a swift clean-up operation to get rid of “anything gay” from the house. The presence of Ali (Samson Selim), a Romani free spirit, who becomes Toni’s live-in boyfriend and a close friend of Mia and Vanesa, functions again as added complexity — he is both visibly Roma and probably the one figure least burdened by appearing “straight” to wider society (back in Šutka, he’s referred to as Gay Toni, and functions for the family as a fixer-translator between the Roma world and the “Macedonian” one).
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If that sounds heavy-going, Housekeeping for Beginners isn’t necessarily a drudge through the big questions of ethnic and sexual identity in 21st-century Macedonia. Stolevski is a remarkably energetic and lithe director, his actors all on board and given freedom and abandon to develop their characters. The dialogue is consistently rip-roaringly funny, though the subtitles barely capture the half of it (at least, from what I understood in Macedonian… I can only assume the same for the Romani sections). It’s remarkable and refreshing to see a director, just three films into a promising feature career, playing so carefree and relaxed with his characters, who are imbued with love and generosity. At a time when up-and-coming directors seem stifled by pressure, to the point where each image and each line feels as if it has gone through five years of script development, Stolevski’s work has air and breath to it, like someone in love with the energy of simply creating.
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For all of Stolevski’s playing about with performativity, sexuality and image, the opening scene appropriately features Ali, Mia and Vanesa singing to Konstrakta’s “In Corpore Sano” — Serbia’s 2022 Eurovision entry. It’s an art-pop masterpiece that finds the middle ground between Slovenian industrial sloganeers Laibach and Lady Gaga. The lyrics, gendered in the feminine in Serbian, declare “The artist must be healthy!” and poke at the modern’s internet’s hyper-obsession with women’s beauty. It’s a bright, catchy pop song with an undercurrent of sharpness, liberation and knowingness, much like Housekeeping for Beginners itself.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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