Film noir first appeared when The Depression ended with society feeling the lack of material objects, in response to the end of the Second World War. The American Dream was coming under threat due to women being forced back into their domestic roles. It uses textual structures and style to show the nightmare that is the American Dream. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curitz, 1948) attempts to modernise a post-war economy by showing how important gender roles are in supporting a balanced family to the audience of the film.
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Mildred Pierce sheds light on “the historical need to reconstruct an economy based on a division of labour by which men command the means of production and women remain within the family, in other words the need to reconstruct a failing patriarchal structure” (Cook, 2005, p. 69). The film also touches on a fear of women by men returning from the war. Women were more independent and less feminine that before the war. “The films themselves seem to indicate just how threatened and unsure hegemonic patriarchy was during the post-war years” (Benshoff, 2007, p. 264).This film deals with the deterioration of a family in post-war America. “While birth rates did soar after the war, so did divorce ratesâ€¦men and women had very different experiences of the war, and the two often did not easily mesh” (Benshoff, 2007, p. 262).
Warner Brothers released the film in 1945, a year many American soldiers returned from World War II. It left millions dead, but the calamitous event also boosted women’s place in society. During the WWII period, women became the main providers for their families while American men were at war, a situation that lead to increased independence for American women. Popular slogans and icons of the time, like Rosie the Riveter, encourage women to work and take charge of their lives. However, when men returned and re-entered the workforce, society expected women to step aside and rejoin the cult of domesticity. This background knowledge adds many layers of meaning to the movie and is vital to understanding the message of the movie.
The protagonist of the film Mildred Pierce does everything in her power to help her children. “Mildred is determined that her children will have greater opportunities in life than she and Bert have had” (Lloyd & Johnson, 2003, p. 14). Mildred dreams that one day her daughters will be prima donnas and concert pianists, and pursues these fantasies to the best of her abilities. Mildred attempts to shoulder fatherly responsibilities, which makes her the worst kind of mother possible. The matriarchal coup ends in disaster, and reveals the filmmakers’ message: a woman’s place is in the household, and she cannot hope to thrive in a man’s world. Mildred replaces men with women she chooses her female daughters over her male husband, which reinforces the idea of a matriarchy. Only Veda and Kay, who are female, can inherit from Mildred. The marriage dissolves on account of the Mildred’s unbalanced, smothering, obsessive, insistent maternal love for her female children.
Mildred’s first flashback within the film has two distinct points of view: Mildred, the woman, and the detective, the man. “The basic split is created in the film between melodrama and film noir, between ‘Woman’s Picture’ and Man’s Film, a split which indicates the presence of two ‘voices’, female and male” (Cook, 2005, p. 72). Mildred’s flashbacks are evenly lit, but cannot be trusted. “The viewer’s process of picking up cues, developing expectations, and constructing an ongoing story out of the plot will be partially shaped by what the narrator tells or doesn’t tell” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p. 92). The detective’s perspective explains the truth of the narrative, but is presented in shadows and low-key lighting. “Mildred’s discourse is the discourse of melodrama, her story is the stuff of which the ‘Woman’s Picture’ was made in pre-war and war years when woman were seen to have an active part to play in society and the problems of passion, desire, and emotional excess” (Cook, 2005, p. 71). The melodramatic tone to Mildred’s narration helps to pull the woman in the theatre into the storyline. Elizabeth Cowie suggests that the voiceover narration in Mildred Pierce is ‘associated with melodramas’ because it markedly lacks a hard-boiled style’ (Cowie, 1993, p. 138). It isn’t quite as simple as this however. Mildred’s melodramatic narrative is put into doubt due to the film signalling her out as a possible suspect who manipulates people to get her way. On the other hand though her melodramatic story has a film noir style that’s impossible to avoid and noir’s dystopian feeling dominates this melodramatic narrative. Cook sees this as the point at which Mildred Pierce becomes a ‘Man’s Film’ because the ‘woman’s discourse’ of melodrama has been taken away and replaced with noir (Cook, 2005, p. 71).
One of the key messages in the film presents the idea for women to stand behind their men and to go back into the kitchen and cook pies. The detective’s discourse is a representation of the man’s role to find the truth through hard evidence. “The detective is simply concerned with establishing the Truth, with resolving the enigma, while Mildred’s story contains complexity and ambiguity, showing a concern for feelings rather than facts.” (Cook, 2005, p. 71). Mildred’s legs are fetish sized in order to control her sexuality. “One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 26). By the man taking a small part of the woman and focusing in on it, the woman, as a whole, is no longer a threat to the man. This entire scene sexualizes Mildred. Men in post-war America were threatened by the woman’s sexual prowess and often tried to repress it. The film gives an example of the “brutal and enforced repression of female sexuality, and the institutionalization of a social place for both men (as fathers and husbands) and women (as mothers and wives) which rests uneasily on this repression” (Cook, 2005, p. 69). Mildred’s sexuality is repressed by the realization later in the film that it is Monte who is using Mildred and not the other way around. The filmmakers provide this devastation through three negative constructions of women in the film.
Veda emerges from her childhood as a femme fatal, a sure sign that something went terribly wrong in her upbringing. The filmmakers imply that if Bert had been around he would have put her in her place. Bert says that he is “so fed up with the way [Veda] high hats” him that he would eventually “cut loose and slap her right in the face.” His attitude towards Veda contrasts sharply with Mildred’s attitude, but in the end, Mildred hits their daughter first. Although he admits that he does not have the maternal connection that Mildred has with her daughters, he knows that her method of raising the kids “isn’t right.” These lines are also important because they show that Bert, the patriarch, knows more about being a mother than the Mildred. She is too busy making pies to provide for her children to see what has gone wrong. Interest in business already makes her blind to domestic problems. While the role reversal between Mildred and Bert does not become apparent until the end, a hint of Bert’s prediction about Veda shows up in the scenes following his departure. Veda, the next matriarch in the line of inheritance, already tries to control her mother after Wally’s visit by trying to trade Mildred’s dignity for a new house. Mildred’s character is paralleled by Veda’s character. “The film asks us, through the device of metaphorical substitution , to confuse the wicked Veda with the honest Mildred, thus establishing Mildred’s innate guilt, even though she is not guilty of the actual murder” (Cook, 2005, p. 71). Through their intimate happenings with the same man at the same location, Mildred later discovers Veda and Monty kissing at the beach house, it is clear that “cinema setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p. 115). Although Mildred did not kill Monte, she is guilty of an even bigger crime in post-war America: pursuing a career and becoming the head of a family. “Mildred’s take-over of the place of the father has brought about the collapse of all social and moral order in her world” (Cook, 2005, p. 75).
Mildred works her way up the socio-economic ladder. She possesses the traits of the ideal all-American man: hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance. Her labours pay off in the Horatio Alger tradition and she reaps a handsome profit from her chain of restaurants. There are two messages in this sequence of events that contradict the ominous predictions of the kitchen scene first; her success demonstrates that if women leave their husbands, they are not condemned to lives of poverty and misery. Second, her successes with the restaurants show that women are also capable of being entrepreneurs in the business world. Ida also enters Mildred’s world, and becomes another affirmative theme in the film. As the two bond they create a relationship that is an equitable partnership, devoid of the power structure present in Mildred’s relationships with men.
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These positive elements build audience empathy for Mildred. They celebrate along with Mildred when her restaurant does well and cheer when she opens the new branches of her dinner. The audience becomes Mildred through this empathy and lives through her vicariously. But these positive themes are later used to manipulate the female audience’s emotive response. The heroine, who momentarily enjoys business success, is destined to fail as a career woman as well as a mother. Mildred Pierce was, after all, designed as a lesson to the women of the post-war period in both its theme and its narrative. The empathy created from Mildred’s success resounds as strongly during her fall from happiness. By manipulating the emotive response in this way, the film reaffirms patriarchal cultural values.
The first of the negative themes begins Kay’s death. It warns of what happens when the nuclear family falls apart: while Mildred frolics at the beach with a new lover, her daughter is dying of pneumonia. Sylvia Harvey has argued that film noir contains a critique of the nuclear family so devastating that no narrative can resolve it (Harvey, pp. 22-34). The film constructs this scene as what happens with the decay of the nuclear family unit. While Mildred is off having an affair with Monte, her daughter is dying. The film teaches its audience how to avoid such a failed family ideal. “The first sign of deterioration comes when Mildred’s one night of illicit passion with Monte is followed by Kay’s death” (Cook, 2005, p. 74). This film establishes ideal gender roles for the redevelopment of society while defining the fear of women present in post-war America. This ultimately sends the message of the importance of the family unit: a woman must stay true to her family as a whole even if it means living an unhappy life. The film implies that an ideal mother would have been on call, always ready to care for her children. Of course Kay dies; she is a sacrificial lamb for Mildred’s excesses. Her death also makes it possible for Mildred to concentrate on Veda and Monte, two key figures in Mildred’s destruction.
The second negative theme deals with Mildred’s maternal failure. As Mildred becomes more heavily invested in her business, Veda drifts further and further away from her, and buys into Monte’s materialistic values. Veda ultimately becomes the femme fatale of the movie, and serves as an example of why women cannot be successful businesswomen and mothers at the same time. Juggling two things at once does not work for Mildred because she can only focus on one thing at a time. Her obsession with making money forces her not to notice the unsavoury developments in her daughter Veda, which Bert forecasts earlier in the kitchen: “The trouble is, you’re trying to buy love from those kids and it won’t work.”
One of the most powerful images in the movies occurs simultaneously as the couple steps into the dawn’s sunrise. Two cleaning women kneel scrub the floor as Bert and Mildred leave. A silhouette shot ensures that they scrub in anonymity and no discerning features of their faces can be seen. These two lowly scrub women are symbols of the two ambitious women of the film: Mildred and Ida. They wash floor as if trying to be cleansed of their sin: the sin of gaining a foothold in society. Truly repentant, they can no longer stand on their feet but only kneel down. Ultimately, this sends the message that female economic power must not be powerful at all only humble and faceless. In post-war America “woman were unceremoniously fired from their jobs in order to create employment opportunities for returning men” (Benshoff, 2007, p. 262). Society demanded that woman be in the home and that men be at the workplace. Mildred’s involvement with a man that doesn’t fit this mould consequently ends in her downfall and the deterioration of her family. The message presented in the film clearly outlines gender roles and what is expected of each sex in order to restore patriarchal order to America at this time.
In 1947, America was recovering from an economic crisis, altered gender roles, a deteriorated male population, and high divorce rates. Leave it to Hollywood to instruct American’s on how to set everything straight again. Not only does this film present a number of messages detailing the woman’s place in the home and the man’s place at work, but it also reflects a fear that woman had gained too much control, become too masculine, and would no longer be a link in healthy family units. The melodramatic ending that Mildred Pierce presents shows that the women’s threat to the patriarchy of men “cannot simply be resolved by love” (Gledhill, 1987, p. 24). It uses extreme representations of women trying to step out of their domestic roles and reassures the women watching the film that although they might be discontented with being forced back into the home after the Second World War, their lives are considerably better than what is being shown on screen.
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