A Fierce Miss American Pie-Maker

16 Oct 2013: Mildred Pierce (DVD, 2011, Todd Haynes)

Though at first I was impressed with the visual tributes to melodrama-master Rainer Werner Fassbinder (there’s a PFA retrospective of his at the moment), the frosted glass, the dollies behind prominent objects in the foreground, etc., the content of the story seems rapidly to devolve from a promising exploration of female-existential angst into a slick well-costumed soap opera of relatively constant raging arguments between Mildred and either her daughter or her lover. Apart from a few particulars, most of what is said about The Painted Veil (set within a few years of this story) above applies here just about as well: as with Far From Heaven, skillful references to prior stylists like Fassbinder and Sirk register as imitations, failing to strike the viewer as personal excursions into new narrative and cinematographic techniques and therefore feeling prefabricated. As for the story itself, the characters are too easily divided into redeeming and unrepentant figures: Mildred’s morals and motives are questioned histrionically by her aspirationally aristocratic devil of a daughter, but she gets off easy (as do the other “right” people) as far as the script and direction is concerned, leaving us with another typical story of an upstanding, industrious worker fighting off lumpen and ungrateful nogoodniks. Strengths such as passionate renderings of sex and powerful acting by Kate Winslet (along with many of the other principals) are undercut by returning her Mildred to the same emotional pitch so often that her travails lose their effect, and thus appear as phony as those of her obviously conniving daughter. If framed differently, this could be a strong point of the miniseries, but instead the viewer is always compelled to identify with the correctness of her momentary ups and downs, until this approaches parody upon her climactic discovery that her lover and daughter are sleeping together. All this said, the series stands far above much of the little TV I’ve seen as far as cinematic visual flair is concerned, and it is a little refreshing to see a drama centered on a female in which she’s neither a self-sacrificing cheerleader for a man nor a kind of macho-femme ass-kicker herself, but rather someone trying to find her way like anyone else.

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