Monster dearest

Pub date December 26, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


Move over, matchy-matchy Faye Dunaway of Mommie Dearest and much too armed and dangerous to hug Shelley Winters of Bloody Mama (possibly the lousy dowager emeritus, thanks to Lolita). Mamma mia, was there ever a year crammed with more bad mothering run stealthily amok, far from most of the multiplexes and the real-life broodies dragging their spawn to the latest animated feature?

If you weren’t busily entertaining your offspring in the big theater, you could easily slip into a small screening room to feel either much better about your parenting skills — or much worse. No, 2006 was not kind to materfamilias — anxiety was high over nurturing yet meddling, muddling, and sometimes castrating bitches with often loved but also neglected litters. The not-quite-model matrons who stood out were flagrantly flawed hard-luck ladies, straight outta the clink, outta rehab, outta options. They were both abusers and abused, working lousy jobs, distrusted, and desperate for a second chance — Norma Raes and Erin Brockoviches sans a speck of political consciousness. Mother’s Day 2006 in the movie houses was all about evil as well as Eve’s plight: succumbing to temptation and, of course, seeking redemption. Call this gaggle of generally downbeat, self-absorbed, Dumpster-realism gals the prodigal (single) mothers.

Homemakers or home wreckers? Welfare queens or queen me’s? In Running with Scissors, Annette Bening’s med-damaged, mad housewife-poet of a mumsy was all of the above, with alimony. Meryl Streep’s cunning Lioness D’Wintour fashion editor piss-take in The Devil Wears Prada juggled career and family nastily, taking a smooth stab at working matriarchs both biological and mentor-ological. And the small-town girls and comeback kids–turned–semimythic maternal figures of Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest women’s film, Volver, take a dreamily innocent, genre-specific, less-realistic gaze at motherhood. The women in Almodóville are decent, vivid, communal, and inadvertently, invariably deadly — these bleeder-brooders with bloody "women’s troubles" live in a world almost completely free of men (the few who do pop up are incestuously abusive), somewhere on the matrilineal border of Two Women and Juliet of the Spirits.

Like Volver‘s Cruz and Maura, two other rhyming cinematic mothers — played by two Maggies, Cheung and Gyllenhaal, in Clean and Sherrybaby, respectively — believe there’s life after a loss of innocence and even death. Birthing best-actress awards and considerations, Cheung’s Emily Wang and Gyllenhaal’s Sherry Swanson are hardened but not broken junkie wild children, needle thin and barely clinging to the cracked-out, earthly pavement as they stomp through Paris and malled-over America, regretfully scraping their way back from prison after dropping their offspring like puppies and drifting off into good nods. Physically, the two cut through their landscapes like blades, antimaternal babes who happen to have had babies.

Braless, tank-topped, and jiggling through the hood, Gyllenhaal’s Sherry has a physical presence that hybridizes the inhibition-free but inappropriately hot mama and the gawky, sunken-chested teen. Slouching through motels and institutions, suburbs and ghettos alike, she’s always the riveting center, despite her love for and hunger to be loved by her daughter. Since she kicked in prison, love has become Sherry’s drug — she wants to work with kids, she’s desperate to take up mothering — and she slyly seduces her daughter with toys, praise, and her alarming, sexualized, chaotic presence from the brother and sister-in-law who raised the girl in safety and warmth. With her discomfitingly sensual singing routine and ravenous desire for attention, Sherry is every parent’s worst nightmare, yet Gyllenhaal’s emotionally and physically naked performance and Laurie Collyer’s empathetic direction etch her into reality. You want to take care of this sad, sexy mum.

On another continent and aeons away in awareness, Cheung’s Emily is also a junkie who landed in jail — after her rock star boyfriend, Lee Hauser, OD’d — but she’s now working her way back into the good graces of her child and family. Resembling a razor-sharp noirish Q-Tip with a shock of black fro, music biz hanger-on Emily evokes obvious predecessors (the derided Asian-other and band destroyer Yoko Ono, the stoned-in-love partner in crime Marianne Faithfull) and less-expected women (delicate beauty with a battery-acid rasp Hope Sandoval). The archetypal snide rock bitch at the start, Emily waxes selfish, proud, mouthy, brawling, irresponsible, bad tempered, only reflexively working her power over Lee — her real hunger is for the next fix. Cheung, however, gives Emily a heart — when her mouth twists into a dreadful pyramid upon hearing that the court has given custody of her son to Lee’s parents.

Still, throughout the process of getting clean, growing humble, and peeling away the layers of posturing, Emily exudes a resigned intelligence that the fearless but somewhat unconscious Sherry lacks. Tearful with loneliness, Emily confesses to her friend Elena (France’s favorite wild woman, Beatrice Dalle), "I don’t know if I can take care of a child." Almost everyone in Clean is smarter than they appear at first glance, even if they are embroiled in the "romantic myth of music," as director Olivier Assayas puts it in a DVD interview. Emily’s race complicates matters further, raising questions similar to those aimed at world-trawling Western adoptive parents. Are the white middle-class Hausers more entitled to raise Cheung’s son than she is? Must she become trustworthy — or assimilate — in order to be with her child?

Both Cheung’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances make one wonder why these women’s struggles are reaching the screen at this time. We continue to grapple with the question of whether single parenting translates to less-than-optimal parenting. Perhaps, as the war pigs and an archetypally male principle run rampant elsewhere, we wonder how we’re supposed to keep the home fires burning. Where are the mothers, and how does one nurture after all the high times? Can we, perpetual adolescents, ever really settle down? Who raised all these people? *


Ivana Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain) and Ko Ah-sung Ko in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea).

Clean (Olivier Assayas, France) and Sherrybaby (Laurie Collyer, US).

The Descent (Neil Marshall, UK). A postfeminist love song to spelunking and Carrie.

Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan). The Ramones would be proud.

The Queen (Stephen Frears, UK/France/Italy), with lady-in-waiting Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, US/France/Japan). Feeling those royal pains.

The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, France/Italy). Charlotte Gainsbourg makes spectacles, sweater dresses, and felt-mation look trés belle.

Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, South Korea). Red eyeliner, exploitation glam, and that scene with the grieving, vengeful parents …

Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain). Making us love Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, eyeliner, and push-up bras again.