‘Meres et Filles (Kakusareta Nikki)’

House of discontented women


Films about women almost always turn out to be magnetic fields of stereotype and generalization — mostly because it’s so much easier to categorize and define the collective female experience (comprised of familiar landmarks such as endless chores and thwarted desires). We’ve heard that famous line from Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” — the one where she declares that a woman is never born a woman but becomes one, more or less to match the specifications of society’s standards — but nothing about how a man gets to be a man.

“Meres et Filles,” however, is cut from a different cloth, and though the story deals heavily with classic women’s issues, like pregnancy, motherhood and the balance of life and work, the overall result is an intricate, intimate painting instead of a slogan- defined poster. Observing three women from three different generations (the 1950s, 1970s and present day), “Meres et Filles” keeps you riveted without resorting to the usual tactics of so many women’s movies: no tears, no screams, no sex. Yet the drama is palpable, scorching the edges of a deceptively placid landscape.

Directed by France’s Julie Lopes- Curval, “Meres et Filles” keeps a tight focus on the strained, painful relationship between 30-something daughter Audrey (played with understated brilliance by Marina Hands) and her successful doctor mother, Martine (the ever-iconic Catherine Deneuve).

Meres et Filles (Kakusareta Nikki)
Director Julie Lopes-Curval
Run Time 105 mins
Language French (subtitled in Japanese)

Pregnant but unwilling to marry a man she doesn’t love, Audrey decides to take some time off from her hectic life in Toronto and return to her hometown in an idyllic French seaside resort. On the surface, this move shows Audrey as an independent-minded career woman, but as soon as she sees her mom again, the armor falls away to reveal the frightened and insecure girl within.

Martine’s welcome is polite at best, and her innate frostiness chills every encounter between mother and daughter as they collide into each other in various corners of the large ancestral house. Audrey looks as if she wishes to melt and seep into the stone walls, away from her mother’s judgemental gaze and barely concealed contempt. At one point, Audrey says tearfully, “Don’t take any notice of me; pretend I’m not here!” and you sense that this has been her wish since child- hood — she pines to be inconspicuous, if not downright invisible. In adulthood, she’s adopted the mousy voice and dark frumpy clothes of an old maid.

Martine, on the other hand, positively radiates assurance, confidence and agelessness, mainly in relation to her patients. In her own clinic (conveniently situated next to the house), she’s known as a kind of Joan of Arc-type savior, unflaggingly supportive and tireless in her efforts to save lives or make them more comfortable. At home, it’s clear that she’s always been restive, snappy and irritable — all her tenderness and emotional finesse had been poured into her profession, leaving the dregs for Audrey and her relaxed, unambitious husband, Michel (Michel Duchaussoy).

The result is far from pretty. Audrey cringes and shrinks away whenever Martine ventures to dispense advice (actually it’s more criticism than helpful words), and Michel is left to wipe up the stains of yet another mother-daughter disaster.

The brilliance of “Meres et Filles” lies in its restraint; far from drawing Martine as a typical matriarch monster, it steps back to observe her childhood and the path that led her to become who she is. Martine’s own mother, Louise (Marie- Josee Croze), was a pretty 1950s housewife both adored and repressed by her husband, who kept her firmly in the kitchen while he went out to work.

Louise kept a journal of recipes that highlighted her skills and inspired competence, but she also kept a diary that told of the hidden frustration of her home life. Audrey stumbles upon the diary, and though she begins to understand the root of discontent that has permeated the house for three generations, Martine’s inherent bitterness and rejection of anything emotional (she can’t stand the sight of tears unless they’re a patient’s) speaks of a deeper, more malignant sadness.

Lopes-Curval and writer Sophie Hiet don’t offer any solutions, perhaps because there are none to give. An ironic twist is how Martine had — subconsciously or not — prepared her daughter for life’s hurts and crushing disappointments by having her get a taste of the bad stuff (sort of like vaccination) at an early age. Instead of immunizing Audrey against damage, the ploy ended up weakening her defenses. You can only hope she won’t carry over the legacy to her unborn child.