Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mildred Pierce (episodes 4-5)

episodes 1-2 | episode 3 | episodes 4-5

In the final two episodes of Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, the story leaps forward in time several years after the previous episode ended with a decisive break between Mildred (Kate Winslet) and her high society lover Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). In the ensuing years, Mildred's business has flourished and expanded, and she now has two additional restaurants as a part of her empire, run by her friends. Mildred's daughter Veda has grown up, too, a detail that Haynes lovingly lingers over during the early scene where Mildred returns home to find Veda playing the piano in the living room. The girl is only seen from behind at first, as Haynes' camera glides through the house, following Mildred as she putters about, the images recalling the scenes from earlier episodes of Veda practicing her piano. But this is not the snotty little brat of the first three parts of the series, this is Veda all grown up into a predatory diva, played by Evan Rachel Wood. And just as she was as a child, Veda is still the center of Mildred's life, the whole reason for her existence. Throughout these often devastating, potent final two and a half hours of the miniseries, Veda's dominance of Mildred's life becomes the focus of the film as well, and in the process it begins to seem like Haynes is critiquing the foundations of motherhood itself.

Mildred's story, after all, is the story of the costs of motherhood. Again and again, Mildred sacrifices everything for Veda. At a certain point, after a tremendous argument, Veda moves out of her mother's home, and Mildred spends the rest of her time trying to get her daughter back, trying to win the affection of this girl who is very appropriately compared to a rare and beautiful — but deadly — snake. Mildred allows her business to flounder, her attention wavering from her previous single-minded dedication to having a prosperous career. The whole reason for her business in the first place was to impress Veda, to be able to provide for Veda, and with Veda gone Mildred no longer seems like the strong, determined businesswoman that she once was.

Mildred also gets back together with Monty after randomly encountering him on a street corner, waiting for a bus — he's "between cars," he says, maintaining his high society composure even now that his fortunes have fallen even further. Their relationship initially seems like an improved version of their original fling. The passion is there, and Mildred's desire for Monty is reawakened once she's back in his presence. There's real if unlikely chemistry between them, and Haynes uses it as an opportunity for another very lurid sex scene: it's not often that one sees a shot of a man's head buried between a woman's legs in a staid period picture. The couple gets married, and Monty seems to have changed in substantial ways from his earlier affair with Mildred. In a key scene for his character, he shows Mildred a room he's arranged for her, decorated with mementos of her daughter and her restaurant; he delivers a moving and seemingly sincere speech about how much he admires rooms that reveal something of their owners, rooms where each object means something to those who inhabit them, and he expresses a wish to make this kind of life with Mildred. It's a very touching moment, and a genuine one, a moment that suggests that Monty has matured, that he really wants to create that happy, meaningful life with Mildred.

That touching moment of potential with Monty, the moment when it briefly seems as though a happy ending might actually be possible for this improbable couple, lingers over the remainder of the film, and makes what happens subsequently even more heartbreaking. Once Veda is back in Mildred's life, it's as though Monty has served his purpose, just as the business has served its purpose, and Mildred ignores each of them more and more. Mildred begins to seem less like the strong independent woman she had once been and more like a overbearing mother who's living through her daughter's life and accomplishments. In one scene, Monty tells Mildred that he'll be sleeping alone, leaving her to stay up late with Veda, and Mildred jokes, "I guess we're just middle-aged," but as Monty walks away down a long, shadowy hallway, shrouded in darkness, it seems obvious that he's not so flippant about his increasing (and rapid) marginalization in this marriage.

Mildred, however, seems more concerned with her daughter, since as Mildred calculated, Veda returns to her mother's life after the marriage, lured by the society wedding and the newly redecorated Pasadena mansion, so remote from the suburban Glendale mediocrity that Veda so despised as a girl. Veda, during her time away from home, has somewhat improbably become a classical opera singer after failing as a pianist, finally displaying the talent that Mildred had always sensed was in the girl. When Mildred first hears Veda sing, she's with Bert, listening to the radio, and Haynes' camera circles around the radio, focusing on the speaker and the sound mysteriously emanating from it, emphasizing the strange disconnection of this moment, the way Veda's voice emerges from the ether, the daughter who Mildred so desperately needs and hasn't seen in months suddenly crying and howling from the radio in airy, high-pitched trills. It becomes too much for Mildred: she walks away, standing by a dock in a composition that echoes a similar one from the 1945 Joan Crawford version of Mildred Pierce, although for Haynes it's not a melodramatic moment of near-suicide but a quiet interlude of contemplation.

Later, in the miniseries' biggest set piece, Mildred, Bert and Monty go to see Veda perform at the Philharmonic, a grand debut that Mildred watches with an expression somewhere between incomprehension and terror. She doesn't even look happy; she looks like she's watching a horror movie, on the verge of tears, over-awed by her daughter's talent, unable to understand how these sounds are emanating from her longtime object of fixation. At one point, Mildred borrows a pair of opera glasses, and Haynes inserts a shot of the view through the binoculars, magnifying Veda's face to reveal the sneering, angry expressions on her face as she sings, as though she's pulling her voice up from some deep, dark place within her, expressing her rage through these beautiful but demanding songs. Mildred looks away almost immediately, unable to deal with that, and she much prefers the encore when Veda unexpectedly sings a song that's implicitly meant for her mother, a song she knows her mother loves, and ends it by blowing a kiss. It's a tender gesture that might also be a sarcastic one, prefaced by an acknowledgment that she knows her mother's song doesn't belong on a Philharmonic program, just as she knows that her mother doesn't belong in the upper class.

All of this sets the stage for the harrowing and unforgettable climactic scene, a masterpiece of staging, in which Mildred finds Veda and Monty in bed together. Haynes really lets the long-bubbling Freudian psychosexual subtexts come raging to the surface at this point, as Mildred slumps against the wall, her mouth slack, her eyes disbelieving and wide, looking at her daughter languidly stretched out naked in bed. Wood's performance is at its over-the-top best here, cutting loose with this chilly girl's sneering, sinister slinkiness. As her mother breaks down in shock and Monty quickly recovers his suave act, Veda becomes downright evil, the full flowering of the nasty, self-motivated, manipulative evil that had shown up in flashes previously but is really unleashed here. She casually lights and smokes a cigarette, lying in bed, the blankets loosely draped over her, falling off her shoulders, smiling her cold smile. And then, in a moment of transcendent horror, she gets up out of the bed, deliberately allowing the blankets to fall away from her long, thin — snakelike — body, and walks naked across the room, parading her body in front of her mother, then sits in front of the mirror, still nude, combing her hair. It's an eerie, dreamlike scene, a nightmare in the flesh. Veda is provoking her mother, displaying herself to her, and the moment resonates with the earlier one in which Mildred had given her sleeping daughter a kiss on the lips that was more sapphic than motherly. This bedroom confrontation is a chilling, provocative sequence, a scene of high gothic melodrama that, in retrospect, Haynes' entire series was building towards.

That's the emotional crescendo of the entire miniseries, and it's very powerful, deliberately upstaging the staid, censorship-bound similar scene in the 1945 Hollywood Mildred Pierce. Haynes, sticking close to the James M. Cain source novel, avoids the murder mystery genre plotting from the Joan Crawford movie, but his film's climax is even more lurid, even more melodramatic, rising to operatic excesses to stage this horrific primal scene. The whole sequence ends with another striking composition, after Mildred has choked Veda, straining the girl's singing voice. Veda runs downstairs, clothed now only in a thin silk robe, staggers to the piano, crouches on the bench to bang out a few discordant notes, croaking awfully, then collapses to the ground beside a puddle of her own vomit. Haynes holds the terrible, emotionally devastating, ugly moment in a long shot, encompassing the shadowy high-ceilinged room with Veda collapsed in the background, Mildred standing in the middleground, and Monty in the foreground looking on in shock. It's a harrowing moment, and contrasted against the meticulous period detail and quotidian reality that dominate the rest of the series, it's as though Mildred has suddenly been plunged into an abyss, hurtling out of her average suburban lifestyle into a psychosexual nightmare.

Following this scene, Mildred has nowhere to go but back into the comforting arms of her first husband, Bert (Brian O'Byrne), and the ordinary suburban existence they once enjoyed. She flees from her daughter, from her business ambitions, from her social climbing rise into the upper class, and returns to boring, prosaic Glendale and the boring, prosaic marriage she'd once fled. The Hollywood film played this marital reconciliation as a happy ending, if a perfunctory one, but Haynes allows the full impact of this turn of events to resonate. It all ends with Bert's hollow insistence that everything will be alright, that they've got each other, and all the while there's such earnest desperation in his face, in the way he urgently pours two glasses of liquor for them. "Let's get stinko," he says, and Mildred repeats it for the last line of the film. And then she shoots the camera a gaze of such teary, red-eyed despair that it becomes instantly apparent that things are not alright, that this is not a Hollywood happy ending, that this couple has got years of drunken denial and disconnection still ahead of them.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Quite right, Ed. That bedroom climax is unlike anything Todd, or anyone else, has ever done before. I told him it reminded me of a Balthus painting come to life -- which he said he never thought of but could see. What makes it especially eerie is the fact that Mildred us far more upset that Veda has betrayed her rather than that Monte has. Veda is the true twisted love of her life. She's Mildred's psycho-sexual "dark side." Quite right that she's able to have perfectly straight forward satisfying sex with Monte. But what she wants is love and the only love she wants is Veda. And all that Veda gives her in return is Hate. All of this is in Cain, but as Fritz Lang says in Contempt "In the script it's written ont eh screen it's pictures. 'Motion Pictures' they call it."

Ed Howard said...

Something about that scene reminded me of a painting, too, though not Balthus specifically (good call, though). I think it's the slithery way Veda walks across the room, simultaneously stiff/formal and sinuous. The chiaroscuro lighting, the dreamlike motion, the expressions on Evan Rachel Wood's face throughout the scene: it's an unbelievable sequence, so eerie and frightening. The more I think about it, the more I think it's one of the best sequences Haynes has ever filmed.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's closest match are is the "Brian Slade" video in Velvet Goldmine

DavidEhrenstein said...


Just Another Film Buff said...

Ed, a truly remarkable review. And so quickly written as well. The best of the three. This is especially superb: "It's a tender gesture that might also be a sarcastic one, prefaced by an acknowledgment that she knows her mother's song doesn't belong on a Philharmonic program, just as she knows that her mother doesn't belong in the upper class."

The ending hour was pretty mind-boggling, in the way it changed tones.

As expected, Veda takes up the same trajectory as Mildred, only in a more grotesque and accentuated fashion, like the film's transition from quiet naturalism to this near-monstrous final half hour.

I suspect the Mildred's initial struggle, her small time success as a businesswoman and then a chain of stores, finally ending in the loss of control to corporates is supposed to mirror Mildred's relationship to Veda.

Much character economy here, whatever the case. Not a character wasted at all.

Great work again Ed.


DavidEhrenstein said...

It mirrors it to some degree. But it's inextricably intertwined with it. For Mildred is doing everything to win Veda's love. She can deal with the ups and downs of business, but her inability to win Veda is devestating to her.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, JAFB. The tonal shift in these final two hours is very pronounced, but it works really well, with all of the groundwork of the preceding three hours forming a foundation for the emotional excess of the finale. I really like your points about how Mildred and Veda's individual arcs mirror one another.

Ed Howard said...

She can deal with the ups and downs of business, but her inability to win Veda is devestating to her.

Yes. And she only goes into business in the first place to impress Veda, trying to prove herself to Veda, who really couldn't care less. Veda wants the prestige of a rich lifestyle, but she has nothing but contempt for the work necessary to amass such wealth. Mildred represents more of an American ideal of success: work hard enough and you'll get what you want, but Mildred's inability to win Veda's love suggests what a myth that is. However hard she works, she'll never be respected, not really, least of all by Veda.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Agreed about Mildred's focus being on Veda and only Veda.

But I do think Mildred's love is more of a self-love. Throughout the first half, Mildred is all by herself. It is always about HER. There are a number of small gestures and words that betray how, for Mildred, nothing matters except how she is perceived. Haynes photographs Winslet through windows and glasses as if she was a fish in a tank, sealed off from whatever is happening to her..It's totally unconscious though. The way she treats Monty only appears normal. She does indeed use her relationships for a specific end. And this is what she realizes in the second half, Veda in this sense becomes an expressionistic version of herself, amplifying all her subconscious behavioral details to sickening levels. In a sense, Veda and Mildred are the same people. The more I think, the more MULHOLLAND DRIVE-esque it becomes. Drat.

RosieP said...

Mildred didn't have a happy ending in the 1945 movie, either. Despite Veda being arrested for Monty's murder (a slapped-on plot line that DID NOT serve the movie well), Mildred is still stuck in her obsession, while being led away by an unhappy looking Bert. I saw nothing "happy" about that.

I guess a happy ending was never in the works for poor Mildred.

Ed Howard said...

But I do think Mildred's love is more of a self-love. Throughout the first half, Mildred is all by herself. It is always about HER.

Interesting way to look at it. You can definitely see Mildred's arrogance in the scene where she meets with her creditors, who are just looking for some reassurance and instead she blows them off, telling them she needed the money — for her mansion, as one of them incredulously notes — and that she's not going to explain herself to them. That's her most Veda-esque moment, though there are other flashes where you can see that the daughter is an exaggerated, unrestrained echo of the mother. After all, Mildred was the one who gave Veda free rein to be the monster she eventually becomes.

Ed Howard said...

Rosie, good point about the ending of the 1945 version of this story. It's not so much a happy ending as a "happy ending," in quotes, fulfilling the conventions of a Hollywood happy ending without actually being all that happy. Still, the rushed nature of it reeks of the Hollywood necessity of getting Mildred back into her marriage right before the end of the movie, restoring normality.

RosieP said...

I suspect that Mildred's unhappiness at the end of the story had a lot more to do with her final loss of Veda to New York than her return to a suburban existence with Bert. Before he said "Let's get stinko", Bert also said "To hell with her". "Her" being Veda, who had just revealed her plans to move to New York with a new singing contract and Monty.

Anonymous said...

It is wonderful to finally see a movie that show just how monstrous children can become just like the real world. Everything Mildred did she did for her daughter yet at the same point that is also what happens when we give our children everything they want. Hopefully some new parents today watching will get the message.