What lingers most after seeing Diane, a wise, sad, and beautiful film, and the best reason to go to the movies this week, is the roads. The title character, anchored in an immersive performance by Mary Kay Place, is always driving - from her house to the extended family who josh and complain and hold each other up, from there to the apartment where her son is failing to hide his problems, from there to the deathbed of a dear friend with whom she has a complicated history, from there to the church soup kitchen where she serves.
Diane, written and directed by the critic and festival curator Kent Jones, is about the process of aging and dying. It also takes in loneliness and community, the regret we feel for past actions, and what others may think of us, and how we cannot control the people we love, or save them from themselves; but it’s tied together by the roads. Diane has to drive everywhere, in the small towns and narrow freeways of Western Massachusetts. This may seem unremarkable, to most of us reading, because presumably most of us reading have to drive everywhere too. But I’m increasingly of the mind that life is not supposed to be lived this way. Humans are meant to live in villages most of the time, villages that don’t require vehicles to get around.
Diane never stops except to go to bed and even then, she has to write a to-do list. She begins a journal, one of the many signs that waiting to be 60 years old to make his first fiction feature, and after a lifetime of immersion in movies, Jones is bringing both personal wisdom, and cinematic heritage to bear. The journal is both a reflective looking back on a life that Diane fears may have been unlived. It’s also a serious attempt at engaging the deepest questions of what it means to be a person and go forward. She even explicitly refers in the journal to “my shadow,” the thing we hide, repress, and deny. There are points in Diane where it reminded me of movies by the greatest excavators of the human condition, Ingmar Bergman in particular. But it’s not just an homage to other work, to tracks already laid. It’s a very unusual thing: a film about a contemporary character many of us will recognize, both in the faces of people we know, and in our wonderings about our own lives; it’s both sad, but not depressing, and even a little bit hopeful.
How much of our lives do we spend driving from one place to another? Are we experiencing the community of interdependent souls, bearing each other’s burdens, or are we just near people, none of us ever quite asking each other the right questions? Questions about what we truly need. At one point, one of Diane’s friends responds to her saying “I need to get out there” with “No, Diane. You need some peace.”
It’s not the only time that one of her conversation partners gives good feedback. Her dying friend Donna (played by the great character actor Deirdre O’Connell, who in Peter Weir’s underseen Fearless (1993) gives one of the most indelible portrayals of grief), stakes a claim to be the best friend ever in a scene about the difference between forgiving and forgetting. Responding to the kind of event that could destroy a friendship, she has forgone revenge, and even learned to love the person who hurt her, but “every now and then” she remembers how painful it was. That’s an approach to suffering that may not seem spectacular, but is both obviously better than retribution, and far more realistic than the sentimental pretense at reconciliation that might otherwise have occurred at a cinematic hospital bedside.
One of Diane’s great pleasures is how seriously it tries to take religion, recognizing the goodness of a way of being that treats life as truly precious, as well as critiquing the ways in which religious language, structures, and unnecessary certainty can be disguises for human immaturity and power games. There’s a lot of praying in Diane. In a sense, the film itself is a prayer, a woman asking herself, and God, what her life has been worth. As with most movies that attempt to portray religious practices, it doesn’t quite capture the nuance of Christian conversation. The unrealistic use of insider jargon aside, Diane actually does understand some of the varieties of the religious experience, from the warmth of service and the dignity offered to folks in need, to the danger of wrapping up selfishness, insecurity, and control in dogma. It also knows that even amidst the pain of the present moment, it is always possible to be planning for Easter.
Diane wants her guilt to be gone. Diane makes the point that so many of us “wrap ourselves up in shame.” It’s very knowing about how there are moments in life when, while undergoing some kind of awakening, we find that “sometimes the air hurts.” The shadow is always with us, but running away from it will not help. There is no substitute for being among other people, truly committing to sharing life with folks on the journey to conscious connection with each other, with love, with the needs of the world. Pausing for a walk in a forest; being tender with our own imperfections; seizing the moment to speak what we feel, not what we ought to say, it’s not rocket science. When one character tells Diane something of great redemptive possibility, he is wise enough to preface how such moments are both rare, and easily lost:
“The next time I beat you over the head with it, just remember what I’m saying now.”
Another member of the community who receives a meal at the soup kitchen, may speak for the audience when he tells her,
“When I come here for a meal I feel pretty low about my situation.
But when you serve me Diane, I feel sanctified.”
I did too.