Diane is a haunting character study of an altruistic 70-year-old woman in rural Massachusetts, which uncannily captures the rhythm of living. The feature narrative debut of Kent Jones, director of the New York Film Festival, the film snagged the top prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
I’m not sure when the trend began — and whether it will continue — but middle-aged women have begun moving from the periphery as minor characters to become the center of a film. The heroines of their own lives. This trend could be a reflection of the second coming of Second Wave feminism — at one time a topic as welcome as a Norovirus — and its current prominence in public discourse. We recently had the Chilean-Spanish Gloria from Sebastian Lelio, followed by Gloria Belle, his English-language iteration with Julianne Moore. Let the Sunshine In from the reliably quirky Claire Denis foregrounds Juliette Binoche as a woman in early middle age navigating a cast of lovers ranging from meh to toxic.
But Diane, the debut narrative feature by Kent Jones, marks off a new subset of films about older women. Juliette Binoche (55) with her lush ripeness, looks, unlike the rest of us, movie-star middle aged, and the same goes for Julianne Moore (58). (I include their age, an irritating media tic, because here it’s relevant.) Rather than reflect their age, they defy and romanticize it.
Unlike Binoche, et al, the eponymous heroine of Diane, embodied by Mary Kay Place, is not depicted through the sexualized male gaze. Though by any standard an attractive woman, the challenges life hurls her way and the resources she must marshal to weather them are mirrored in her anxious frown. Hers is not the face of a woman still seeking romance — it’s the face of a woman in a day-to-day battle to survive. And you never want to look away.
Inspired by members of Jones’s own family, the hard-scrabble characters are boomers clustered in a rural blue collar area (upstate New York standing in for what looks like Pittsfield, Massachusetts). At moments, the widowed Diane, besieged by yet another fresh hell, feels like some latter-day female Job. Top of the list, her son Brian (Jake Lacy, excellent), is a heroin addict fast-tracked for destruction. When she brings him clean laundry and care packages, and begs him to return to rehab, he shockingly calls her a cunt — yet she can’t stop trying to rescue him. She lives in terror of a phone call announcing he’s O D’d. “Only he can do it for himself,” Diane’s friends recite like a mantra. Try telling that to a mother.
In between frantic visits to Brian’s squalid rooms, Diane hits the bleak New England roads to visit a cousin hospitalized with terminal cancer. While the two play gin rummy, the cousin alludes to a past betrayal by Diane that she has forgiven, “but not forgotten” — a remark that will resonate in the third act reveal. Diane, whose existence is a round of service to others — possibly to atone for that betrayal — also works in a soup kitchen and brings casseroles to an ailing friend. Her single respite is the community she finds with friends and family, gathered round a dining room table in tatty housecoats and themselves worn down by age and infirmity, yet buoyed by humor and camaraderie. Jones’s camera sometimes holds on their faces — including that of the marvelous Estelle Parsons — the way cinematographers of Hollywood’s Golden Age shot movie queens.
On first hearing a thumbnail description of Jones’s film, I thought, uh-oh, another exercise in miserabilism (a cinematic trend which our current world justifiably inspires). But no; the film may depict woeful lives, yet Jones maneuvers his material to another plane through artistry and craft. Mary Kay Place (who Jones always intended for the role) delivers an astonishing heroine of a different stripe — a turn that must surely figure in awards conversation. Her clashes with Brian are feral and raw. The scenes shot from Diane’s car as she drives through the countryside inject a chilly, sometimes golden twilight melancholy. You may never look at wintry woods and modest frame houses in the same way. Jones positions the driving interludes almost musically, as a refrain; cutaways from the mess of human lives. Ever the cinephile, he ironically gestures at Wong kar-wai in transforming shabby local diners strung with Christmas lights into bejeweled wonderlands.
For conventional plot the narrative substitutes something more sinuous and wayward — like the hairpin curves in the road? — a sense of time unspooling. And, in fact, people in the film grow older (Diane is white-haired by the end). Dear friends die. Diane’s son Brian moves on to substitute for heroin an addiction to religiosity; in a darkly funny reversal, Brian tries to “convert” and rescue his mother. What elevates these ordinary lives is an elegiac distance, the feel of a memory piece (Jones has said he’s been mulling over his family’s stories some forty years). If it’s not too corny to say, Diane ennobles these embattled folks. One of the film’s most beautiful lines is spoken by a black man who’s become a source of comfort to Diane at the soup kitchen where she works. “When you serve me Diane,” he says, “I feel sanctified.”