I dreaded seeing Todd Haynes' rendition of James M. Cain's masterpiece of working-class melodrama Mildred Pierce. It debuted as an HBO miniseries back in 2011, and I just watched it this week. The dread has a lot to do with my love for the 1945 movie version of Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford. That movie is one of those classic, campy go-tos, comfortable, fast-paced, and brilliantly arranged so that Joan Crawford can fashion a supercharged, fully-lipsticked star-turn as a trying-too-hard victim who eventually realizes everything she's done for her little bitch of a daughter is in vain.
The novel is a lot more intricate, and also more of a slow burn. I read it a few years back in a James M. Cain fever-sweep, everyone of his almost-mid-century noirs in a row, including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce, the novel, has a sleepy-sick pace to it, a flatness that bursts into intense passion at the drop of a hat, so that by the end of the book you feel deeply connected to Mildred and also somehow still in awe of her her alien-ness, her status as a sort of icon that doesn't really represent anything specific outside of her own status as, well, Mildred Pierce. She's a hard-worker. She's independent. She takes the bull by the horns. But at the end of the day she's ruined by her hugest and saddest flaw: her deep-seated love and jealousy and resentment and worship of her snotty sinister older daughter, Vida. And Vida, in turn, is just as mysteriously iconic, lurid and horrible and yet somehow innocent in ways Mildred can't be, in that sad-sack way of all unrequited relationships. Mildred's intense and self-diminishing love for Vida is the monster in the room, out-monstering even Vida, the true little monster of the piece.
All of those complications are paved over in the 1945 Mildred for the most part, which makes the thing zoom on through with murder-mystery ferocity. But Haynes puts up roadblocks in his version, and un-paves those complications, pulling up asphalt layers in order to show us the hows and whats and whys, but also lingering within the mystery of Mildred's messed-up but somehow work-a-day obsessions. His remake/revision is a stylized, lush but dour "novel for television" that takes itself very seriously, and yet has a strangely insouciant edge that's almost indefinable, kind of like a parody without comedy attached, but the parody is so deeply rooted in the meticulous lighting and set-design and cinematography you experience the overarching distance of Haynes' approach the same way you experience versions of your own dreams: there's a logic to his determination, a passion to his need to stare at his own made-up Depression-era America. And while it all makes sense, you don't understand the sense being made outside of the image and the moment and the need that it make sense.
Kate Winslet is Haynes' Mildred Pierce, and Winslet is very comfortable in his universe. She gives the neo-Mildred a stone-cold docility and sharpness in certain areas, a fatigued loveliness in others, and a bold, tight-lipped lustiness when needed. The lust and the love combine most intensely and unnervingly in the last segments of the miniseries, when Vida (played like a hellish android with total and abysmal relish by Evan Rachel Wood) is ascending toward a stellar career as a classical singer. Winslet delivers emotions that usually don't get rarified treatment like this in movies and TV: total, almost psychotic martyrdom mingling with jealousy and envy and also a fear that she does not deserve the very emotions she's feeling. Winslet gives these cross-currents of feeling a bedrock in her expressions, in her gaze. It's the kind of acting a full-speed-ahead movie can't allow to get in. Hayne's slow-boat-to-China pacing is about capturing those kinds of emotions and allowing them to be absorbed and echoed somehow, become a part of the tightly controlled scenery and symmetry he's created.
By the end of Haynes' Mildred Pierce, you are in the presence of true need. Mildred's desire to please Vida manifests in not only total self-destruction but in a sort of self-realization that becomes torment in a scene in which Mildred discovers Vida naked in bed with Monte, Mildred's new playboy husband played by Guy Pearce in a performance that somehow channels emotions without feeling, a tour-de-force depiction of smarm, seduction and ennui. When Mildred discovers Vida, Vida lights up a triumphant cigarette in her new lover's bed and slowly pulls herself from under the covers, revealing a nudity that is somehow dislocated from sex and love, and even power. It represents a supernatural vindictiveness, a horrible style that Vida "wears" all the way to the other side of the room, where she slowly sits down at a vanity to brush her hair. At that point, Mildred loses it, and strangles her.
You definitely want to strangle Vida as well, and yet as in all of Haynes' strange and stellar oeuvre (including Far from Heaven and Safe) you also understand the power of movies in that moment, how art can collapse life into a sensuousness and fury unmatchable to the real.