USA 2012. Dir: Barbara Kopple, Scr: Barbara Kopple
The film opens with the scene being clearly set: Seven of Mariel Hemingway’s relatives, including grandfather Ernest, committed suicide. But there’s a still more disturbing moment when the final credits show that Oprah Winfrey is executive producer. It’s easy to be suspicious: we imagine OW in a big gleaming limo on the phone to Kopple, “Make ’em cry, Babs”. But this does the director a massive disservice. This a brave film and she is in control.
It’s the story not just of Mariel but of the three sisters living with the Hemingway gene – the daughters of Ernest’s eldest son’s marriage, one that was unhappy and blurred by “wine time” every evening. Muffet is the eldest: she was elegant, sporty, clever, nomadic, but often institutionalized and now barely recognisable, living on the margin of society, unable to fend for herself. Margaux, the wild child, drinker, fighter, big partier, at one time the highest paid model in the country and star of films with mixed critical and commercial success, now dead after a drug overdose in 1996. And Mariel, a more successful movie star who – after her husband’s cancer, a broken marriage, battles with depression, faddish life-style obsessions – actively campaigns for suicide awareness and, here, talks with disarming honesty about coming to terms with being from “the other American family that had this horrible curse”.
Kopple’s style here is passive, she’s a watcher and a collector. The narrative doesn’t build momentum, nor is there a big surprise moment that shifts the gear or direction nor onion-peeling detective work. And it is more subtle than a polemic on mental health. The film is a collage with a chronological spine. It splices together family film footage, interviews and fly on the wall views of Mariel with film and tape interviews with Margot along with excerpts from an unfinished film of hers, retracing her grandfather’s footsteps. These sections are the highlight as Margot’s louche, self-destructive allure commands our attention. In a striking scene we are shown Margaux’s distress at the brutality of the bullfight. Mariel reflects that the event is a “metaphor for Margaux’s life”.
Kopple never spoon-feeds opinions to the audience: the almost off-the-cuff revelation that the girls were sexually abused by their father is left hanging and passes – its a “what did she just say?” moment; footage of the “Out of the Darkness” festival for people touched by suicide is used only as moving context to show the bond between Mariel and her daughter, and; we are encouraged to form our own view of Mariel. Kopple indulges her self-pity at times – how she never felt important, how she provided the support to a mother who “lacked physical affection”. But shows her remorsefully reflecting on tension with Margaux, who “Idolized all the things I hated. I thought she was stupid”. This candour shows her strength, emphasized when Kopple takes a directorial risk, by showing a sort of reality tv argument between Mariel and her partner. But then she neatly cuts to Mariel pulling herself up a sheer rockface by her fingertips.
It’s a brave film about women who, though not Nobel-prize winning novelists, deserve attention for trying to build their own lives in the shadow of “Papa” Ernest and who are interesting in their own right, albeit tragically. Its subject matter does takes us close to, not quite over, the schmaltz line once or twice but the most painfully sugary moment is when Margaux explains her change of name (from Margot): it was the wine her father was drinking when she was conceived. She stops short of saying whether he was chateaud at the time.
Also by Barbara Kopple (Selection):
Bearing Witness (2005)
American Dream (1990) [Oscar for Best Documentary]
Harlan County, USA (1976) [Oscar for Best Documentary]