Todd Haynes has tried his hand at a variety of styles and narrative approaches. From Poison to I’m Not There his cinematic style has proven to be as versatile and as challenging as any filmmaker could hope to be. Last year he tackled the melodrama head-on in a six-hour miniseries for HBO, Mildred Pierce. Barrowing heavily from the cinema of Douglas Sirk, as he did with Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes reinvigorates the genre by implementing the old and tried conventions that were the hallmark of American cinema in the fifties in a medium that is decidedly modern, the HBO miniseries.
First, I would like to point out how far HBO has allowed the television miniseries to come since its conception. HBO encourages established and decidedly cinematic filmmakers to create what are essentially epic films that need not be inhibited by running time. The funny thing is, such an approach has been the standard in Europe since the early seventies. Why it took so long to catch on in the U.S. I do not know.
Working with this medium of epic story telling, Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond have crafted a script that remains truly faithful to James M. Cain’s novel. Utilizing the scope of the miniseries, they have crafted a film that progresses at a slow pace, allowing performance to exist at the forefront of the film. At times the pace of the film seems to tread along lazily, moving slowly from one catastrophe to another.
At the center of the film is Kate Winslet in the title role. She doesn’t play Mildred for sympathy, preferring instead an organically objective approach that shows cases both the good and the bad in her character. Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter Veda, a spoiled and sociopathic upstart who serves as the catalyst for nearly every evil that befalls Mildred. Guy Pearce plays Mildred’s second husband Monty, a charming opportunist and chauvinist. In the narrative, it is Veda and Monty who present the obstacles and betrayals which prevent Mildred from enjoying that which she has achieved (when her first husband leaves her, she starts a chain of restaurants).
Cain’s novel has all the trappings of classic Hollywood melodrama, and Haynes doesn’t shy away from incorporating old Hollywood styles into the film to reflect that. Haynes doesn’t cut his shots the way that is common today. The shots in Mildred Pierce linger, or so it would seem if Haynes weren’t intentionally trying to re-create the pace of film editing in the fifties. Another throwback convention is the use of rear projection in car scenes. Constantly Haynes is keeping his audience aware of the heritage of this kind of movie making.
And like Douglas Sirk, Haynes often frames his characters reflected in mirrors or seen through a window or some sort of glass. As Sirk once did, Haynes does, carefully picking his shots in which he wishes to distort the audience’s view of the character. Haynes also permits his actors to play their parts a little too “big” at times, but as I said before, Haynes rarely cuts away from the performances so that they are always at the forefront of the film. The mood of these “big” moments, given their duration and the exaggerated posturing of the actors, at times feels less like Sirk and more like Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who happened to study under Sirk). Perhaps that is because, unlike Sirk, Fassbinder’s work was often made for television and allowed for scenes to play that long. Or maybe it’s the phenomenon of the performance driven cinema that defined the cinema of the seventies? Regardless, Haynes utilizes these tools to astonishing effect.
But Haynes does more than just imitate style and convention. Mildred Pierce is a decidedly Todd Haynes film. His obsession with sexual subversion is ever present and factors heavily into the lives of the film’s characters. Even before Mildred discovers Eva’s affair with Monty, sex is used to manipulate and undermine different characters. Monty is essentially Mildred’s gigolo after all. The level of grief and shame Haynes gets from Winslet when she confronts Veda about faking her pregnancy to black mail a film director is disturbing. Winslet’s face twists and bursts with tears. In the hands of another director, moments such as these would not be played quite so over the top. It makes sense though, through the big reaction, the gravitas of the situation, as the audience more easily understands a moral dilemma. In a scene where Mildred catches Veda in bed with Monty, there is a long 18second shot of Veda naked, combing her hair after sex. Haynes then cuts back to Mildred as her face slowly reveals her emotional reaction. The audience doesn’t need to see the sex act. The perverse nature of the sex is clear enough in this juxtaposition of these shots that it would have been less effective to show it.
It’s rare to find a balance of convention and innovation in any film let alone a film that runs over three hundred and sixty minutes long. But that’s what makes this Todd Haynes’ most provocative film. He’s a director who doesn’t do many films with a linear narrative, yet has managed to complete this film rather successfully.