Mildred Pierce recap, parts 4 & 5: the mess of Mildred, Monty and Veda
Waves crash on the beach as jaunty music plays. Mildred (Kate Winslet) is opening another restaurant -- in Laguna Beach. It’ll be her third, after Glendale and Beverly Hills. She’s doing so well Wally (James LeGros) tells her she’ll have to incorporate.
In two parts four and five, Mildred’s daughter Veda is played by Evan Rachel Wood, bearing the same deliberately awful faux elite accent as her predecessor -- it’s in the book that way, a put-on accent that’s gratingly false. Her piano teacher dies, and she gets an audition with a fancy Italian conductor, who thinks little of her playing. Again with the weeping.
This time, though, she has a candid tantrum, screaming at her mother about how she hasn’t got any talent, she’s no good, she’s nothing more than a Glendale wunderkind. Mildred’s efforts at reassurance -- awkward, faithful, hopeful -- only make Veda angrier. There is a clash of world views: Mildred believes that hard work and perseverance will be rewarded; Veda believes in breeding, in native gifts, and is convinced she has neither.
Over and over, we see Mildred refracted through glass, split in two by a beveled edge, behind a reflection in a car window. Earlier it seemed like a metaphor for being trapped; could it also imply a fragility in her situation -- is she living in a glass house?
Let’s take a moment to admire the fine vintage dress Kate Winslet wears in part four, white with red details (above). Vintage or vintage replica, it’s pretty terrific. I hope they let her keep it. Better yet: I hope they packed it up and are sending it to me. I’ll take it.
Sadly, the New York location they’ve got subbing for Laguna Beach is not nearly as marvelous. Not only is the architecture of the building all wrong; the seaside setting has nothing of the seductive grandeur of the real Laguna.
Similarly, Winslet is a drabbed-down version of the Kate Winslet we know. Mildred’s hairstyle is now frumpy, she starts slumping and she treads heavily, like a woman accustomed to spending all day on her feet. This realism stands out because in the universe Haynes has created, everything gleams with an idealized perfection. Only Mildred appears worn.
Veda is up to some kind of trick -- that’s what Mrs. Lenhart, the former Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis) says when she visits Mildred. We recognize her as the rich woman whose house Mildred ran from when she couldn’t bear to take a job as a servant, but she can’t place Mildred. Instead she’s there because Veda – whose name she insists on pronouncing VITA, proving that mispronunciation equals unpleasantness – has been blackmailing her son.
In several scenes that are built around an outdated inability to say “sex” or “pregnant,” we find out that yes, Veda is saying she’s pregnant, and she’s used Wally to help lean on the family. But as Mildred eventually finds out, Veda -- who looks quite a bit older than the 17 she’s supposed to be – wants money, not marriage. Why does she need money when her mother's businesses are doing so well? Because she wants to break away, as she screams in a horrible fight between them. It’s hard to tell what Veda hates more: her mother or Glendale. She really, really hates Glendale. But she hates her mom, too; she’s contemptuous of her and insists that she can’t tell her what to do.
Mildred has finally, finally had enough. “Get out. Now. This is unacceptable,” she tells her. And so Veda leaves.
This could be the end of the story. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? The end -- full of part 5 spoilers -- after the jump.
As part five begins, Mildred is trying to work her way to Veda. Effort No. 1 is trying to pay for Veda’s singing lessons. She talks to Veda’s vocal coach, the same Italian conductor who thought her piano playing stank, who says Veda is a great singer but is a snake. He goes on and on with his snake metaphor, but Mildred refuses to let it sink in. She loves Veda.
Then she bumps into Monty (Guy Pearce), leading to effort No. 2. She tries to gloss over her problems, then she’s candid with him about her estrangement from Veda. She wants to buy a house, she says. In Pasadena, where he lives and where Veda always aspired to live. Monty just happens to have a house that’s been languishing on the market for the duration of the Depression, and he’s broke. Mildred is aggressive, telling him to sit on the couch with her, making a play for the house and for him too. He declines: “We should stick to the house.”
Oh, but where are they? They are sitting on a couch. Put Monty and Mildred on a couch and you can count the seconds before the panties start coming off. And they’re off.
“Oh Monty,” Mildred purrs later in bed, “how could I ever live here without you? I couldn’t do it.” In a fit of post-coital delusion, she starts a joke with him about getting married and sentences later decides they’re engaged.
She moves into Monty’s ancestral mansion, and pulls money out of her corporation to bring it back to life. Monty is, as always, charming – he flatters her, he seems genuinely willing to be engaged with being engaged. They get married! They have a lovely party!
And what does Monty get her but a young opera singer. Here’s Veda!
After singing, she captivates the guests with the (embroidered?) story of her discovery, egged on by Monty. Mildred sits on the arm of Veda's chair and beams, apparently overlooking the fact that her wedding party has been hijacked by her daughter.
Next, Veda is performing on stage at a theater that I recognize as being at NYU (the orange-painted arches are pretty recognizable). This is a bit disorienting because the point of the scene is that Veda can’t accept an offer from a new sponsor she desperately wants that would take her to New York. Which is just outside the doors, about 8 feet to her right.
As they settle into family life and Veda settles into their home, Mildred alternates between scorning Monty and taking him for granted (not so different from how she used to treat Bert). Meanwhile, Veda extends him more courtesy than she does anyone else – and he notices.
Veda gets an important show at the Philharmonic and Mildred plans a big expensive after-party. Although she arrives too late to talk to Veda before the show, she glimpses Monty inside the dressing room. She and Bert go and take their seats.
There are long of scenes of Veda singing. Long.
This is the difficulty of “Mildred Pierce.” Mildred is interesting; Veda less so. But in this last part, it’s Veda Veda Veda. While we understand Mildred loves her daughter, her need for Veda to return that love is outsized, and clearly misdirected. Almost everything we’ve seen of Veda proves her to be selfish, arrogant and cruel. If she is the product of her mother -- which she is, in a twisted way -- she is still so clearly toxic that Mildred’s adoration seems increasingly impossible.
Is Veda still singing? Yes she is.
See, we don’t share Mildred’s fascination with her daughter -- we can’t. We know she’s vile. And as director Todd Haynes is trying to force us into Mildred’s perspective, or to drive home how much she’s blinded to the realities of her daughter by her needy love for her, it becomes too much. Not too much drama or tension, but too much Veda. Way too much Veda.
Then the chickens come home to roost, or at least, the chicken suppliers. In a time compression that doesn’t make much sense, it seems like all of Mildred’s restaurant creditors are going to take her to court because they haven’t been paid for two weeks. They’ve called a meeting at her Laguna restaurant – her own restaurant, to call her to task. And for some reason, they’re all represented by Wally, who also is her legal advisor. But he’s on their side, not hers.
Stop drawing such a big salary, he says. Get cash from Veda. Mildred has one week to show them that she’s back on track. Huh? Good luck with that.
Mildred meets with ex-husband Bert, admitting she’s been keeping two sets of books. He decides her stealing from her own company is not illegal, but worries that trusted advisor Wally is plotting to take the business from her, just as he stole Bert’s real estate business years before. Bert decides they should protect Veda and her assets from the predatory Wally.
Talk about misplaced concern. Mildred gets home to protect Veda whom she can’t find -- until she reaches Monty’s bed. Oh, Monty. He’s tired of being pushed around by Mildred, tired of her penny-pinching -- plus, he and Veda are in love, he cries. Veda is cool as ice in bed, taking a drag from a cigarette, looking slant-eyed at her mother.
This is not about Monty, is it? Veda -- as dismissively as her mother -- orders him to get dressed. Veda rises from the bed, fully naked. It is an arresting moment: skin like ivory, she strides across the room, arrogant, sexual, young, beautiful. Just like in part two, the camera suddenly takes Veda’s POV as she fixes her gaze on Mildred, tracking with her. This time, the dowdy, hunched Mildred stares back cycling through levels of humiliation and defeat and anger. The scene takes on a David Lynch-like dread (perhaps aided by the Twin Peaks-like wood paneling in Monty’s mancave), with Veda sitting nude before a vanity, slowly stroking her hair, watching herself and her mother in the mirror’s reflection. Monty brings a robe and drapes it over her.
Mildred springs at Veda, grabbing her around the neck. They fall to the ground, Mildred choking her. It takes Monty some time to pry Mildred off, and as she rolls away, a wheezing fills the room. Veda scuttles downstairs to the piano and tries to sing with it. She sounds like a broken animal. From the margins, Mildred watches, worlds collapsing within her.
All this inverted Oedipal drama ends with order irrationally restored. Mildred, who has lost her business, divorces Monty and remarries Bert; the two move back into their Glendale home. Veda comes by for their wedding after party, but refuses to come in; she stands, dressed to the nines, at a taxicab. Her voice is better, she says. She got a contract to go to New York, she says. And when her mother asks if anyone is going with her, she says yes, Monty. Of course. New York: the place where surrogate fathers can get together with their daughters and still be accepted, still play clarinet … oh, nevermind.
Something in what Veda says sticks in Mildred’s head. Is the sponsor of Veda’s singing contract connected to the creditors who took away her restaurant business? She bursts into feverish anger at Veda, who’s locked into the cab, screaming outside the window.
Then Mildred and Bert together swear off their daughter, for reals, and toast together with Bert’s brave if un-elite cheer, “Let’s get stinko.”
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photos: Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood in "Mildred Pierce." Credit: HBO