Grey Gardens is without a doubt a challenging film. It’s almost an completely narrativeless piece of cinema verite centering two isolated women wandering around their house talking to each other. And yet, even for its narrative lulls, it remains a compelling film. It’s lovely photography and eccentric original characters ensure that.
The title refers to the house that “Big” Edie Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale, the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, have been cooped up in for many years. Before the film starts, the house had been “raided” by the health department and deemed inhabitable. It seems that at some point, the Beales had simply refused to leave, and had stayed there with no income for about thirty years or so. The house is overrun with cats and raccoons, the groceries are delivered, and the women take care of themselves, but only just barely.
The main subject of the film is not really how or why the Beales got to be this way, but rather how they are. The Maysles brothers follow them around in their daily routines, which consist of seemingly rehearsed arguments between Big and Little Edie. They argue about each others singing talents, their faded beauty, Little Edie never getting married, and whether or not Little Edie will leave. They argue about the same things over and over again, in tones of voices that seem more theatrical than spontaneous, punctuated by snippets of old show tunes and Little Edie’s invented dance routines. Upon occasion, Little Edie will leave the house to go to the nearby beach or wander around the gardens near the house, but she always comes back.
This is the main thing that bothered me about the film. I get why Big Edie stays in the house. She’s old and infirm, and is physically unable to leave on her own and emotionally unable as well. The mother and daughter have a strange relationship that seems to make it unable for Little Edie to leave as well, despite her protestations. I don’t want to call it abusive for some reason, even though that certainly could be it. Big Edie seems to devote a lot of her energy in putting down her daughter, because of her faded beauty (you see picture of her in her twenties, and she was very pretty) and her lack of singing and dancing talent. Little Edie keeps saying she’ll leave and that she can’t stand life at Grey Gardens anymore, and seems to exhibit a great force of will, but never leaves. (Though to be fair, I don’t know if she ever left after the film was over.)
I’m sure many people will watch this movie and find the Beales objects of fun, though I don’t think they are presented that way. The Maysles reserve judgement on the Beales I think, and don’t condemn their rather unusual living situation and relationship. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that the Beales won’t let them. They do exactly what they like and don’t really care what anyone thinks. They seem to welcome so much attention after living alone and shut away for so long. This is the main thing that makes the film work; it’s still awkward in spots because it’s hard to watch such private moments, but you get the sense the Beales just don’t care and even welcome it.
I did really like the photography of the film. I did see it in a theater which admittedly makes all the difference in the world. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a film in the theater is a 4:3 aspect ratio (a section of The Grand Budapest Hotel maybe? I can’t remember). I think even in the ’70s when the film was originally released that would have given the film a sense of a bye-gone era, since that aspect ratio was more common in Old Hollywood. The colors are very vibrant, and we see a lot of the practicalities of how the Maysles shot it. There’s one scene in which we see one of the brothers pulling focus in a mirror. It’s pretty cool.
There are some very strange closeups on Little Edie’s face throughout, and I don’t know if that’s a product of it being shot on the fly or if it’s actually intentional. Sometimes it’s corrected and sometimes it’s not, but of course I have no idea what was cut. The closeups at strange angles were very distracting though, in a way that the reframing and fixing focus on the fly wasn’t for some reason. (It’s interesting for me to see how documentaries are shot as opposed to narrative films.)
Unfortunately, the film still didn’t hold my interest all the way through mainly because it didn’t have any narrative drive to speak of and wasn’t interested in addressing many of the natural questions anyone would have while watching it. However, it’s still a fascinating film even for all of its drawbacks. The Beales are fascinating indeed, there’s no getting around that.
“I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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