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Albert and David Maysles’ cult documentary Grey Gardens evokes horror, humour, disgust and pathos, often all in the same moment. It finds its subjects, former high society ladies and would-be stars Edie Bouvier Beale and daughter ‘Little’ Edie (aunt and first cousin to none other than Jackie Kennedy), living in squalour in their dilapidated mansion in upscale East Hampton, New York. Filmed in the Maysles Direct Cinema style, Grey Gardens offers no overt commentary on proceedings and little in the way of context, save for a few preliminary shots of newspaper cuttings represent the media scandal surrounding the Beales’ living conditions. The style allows Big and Little Edie to speak for themselves. More importantly, however, the film resists a focus on the eponymous house’s restoration, instead representing the women’s chaotic lives as a non-linear series of moments, with the film’s editing often seeming to merge chronologically distinct events into singular emotional images.
Indeed, past, present and future frequently become confused in the telling of the Beales’ stories. Tellingly, in an early sequence, Little Edie notes that “it’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present”. Both women’s obtuse references to half-remembered past events makes piecing together a coherent narrative difficult enough, but mother and daughter’s conflicting versions of their history makes it nigh on impossible. It’s apparent from Grey Gardens‘ opening moments that both women were suffering from some fairly serious mental health issues, with Little Edie endlessly dancing around like a child showing off, and Big Edie sleeping on an unspeakably filthy mattress, surrounded by cat food tins and empty cartons of ice cream, a food on which she appears to exclusively subsist.
But out of their madness come moments of clarity and insight. When Little Edie laments the poor career choices she made, her mother reminds her that “whatever you didn’t do in life was good” – in other words, it’s always easy to see the decisions you didn’t make as the ones that you should have. It’s a line that keys the audience in to another important theme of the film and the question over how far both women have over the choices they make. Little Edie is in constant conflict over her life choices, resenting her continued residence at Grey Gardens, while apparently making no attempt to improve her situation.
Big Edie appears more at peace, claiming that she’s led a very satisfying life, but while listening to a radio broadcast about staying on top of the problems in one’s life, she can seen staring into the middle distance in an apparent moment of self-reflection, before snapping out of her reverie to return to singing half remembered songs. The film’s final shot of Little Edie dancing alone on the filthy floorboards of her rotten hallway is as poignant an image as can be imagined. Simultaneously humorous, pathetic, and triumphant, it is the unconscious statement of a person railing against the world, lost in the maze of her own past and the uncertainty of her future, at once hopelessly deluded and consciously defiant.
Grey Gardens is released on blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection in the UK.