by Ron Simon, 3/28/19
Caregiving has become a second, or maybe third, occupation for many Americans. Aging parents, addicted children, depressed family and friends all cry out for some type of emotional assistance. Most news reports concentrate on the afflicted, but in Kent Jones’s first dramatic film, Diane, we feel the anxiety and private turmoil of the caregiver. Diane premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, where the film, produced by Martin Scorsese, won awards for Best Narrative Feature Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. It is opening in theaters this weekend in New York at IFC.
Diane, played by the wise and compassionate Mary Kay Place, is the archetypal caregiver, a seeming Saint for Suffering Souls. She spends her senior days caring for relatives and friends wherever they are in distress. She is constantly driving in a wintry landscape of rural Massachusetts to visit her cousin Donna (a steely Deirdre O’Connell), dying of cervical cancer in a hospital or serving meals to the homeless. She is also trying to minister to her tormented son Brian (played with volatility by Jake Lacy), whose life has been a series of addictions. Diane piously perseveres with the weight of her world on her shoulders, at home and on the road.
Writer/director Kent Jones is a renowned film scholar and programmer of the influential New York Film Festival. His previous documentary concentrated on the relationship between cinema’s most expressive innovators, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. For his dramatic debut, Jones keeps his cinematic style to a bare, mundane minimum. Jones, no doubt, has absorbed Paul Schrader’s seminal book Transcendental Style in Film, which examined how directors represent spirituality and the striving for the ineffable in their work. Jones allows his characters to inhabit their environments, creating a meditative pace of discovery, especially for Diane and the audience. Cinephiles might see Ozu or Bresson lurking in the long takes, but everyone in the audience will recognize family members grappling with mortality’s stumbling blocks.
A visual pleasure of Diane is the expressive, lived-in faces of the veteran actors who bring Jones’ mostly female characters to mature, full-bodied life. Diane’s friends and family are not wisecracking sitcom seniors, quipping their remaining days away. Every performances portrays a sagacious, striving elder, trying to comprehend the last phrase of existence, from Estelle Parsons as Donna’s strong mother to Andrea Martin as Diane’s trusted friend to Joyce Van Patten as the philosophical Madge, to name just a few.
But Diane’s sainthood comes at a cost. With each loss, Diane must summon the courage to find a new part of herself. After an alcoholic breakdown in a favorite bar from past, lip-synching to Rolling Thunder-era Bob Dylan, Diane realizes that caregiving not only deals with present day anguish, but also the ghosts of unresolved past. Jones acutely dramatizes how the psychic wounds of family history destroy as much as physical decay. Diane’s personal search for ultimate meaning brings the film to a dreamlike finale.
Caregiving is the destiny of us all, first as the giver and finally as recipient. Diane, Kent Jones’s quiet drama of a close knit, older community, is a profound statement on transience for all of us, at any age, to contemplate.