Being ordered by your mother to "Go to your closet and pray” is hopefully not a parenting technique of which too many of us have had first-hand experience. But then, hopefully also, few enough of us are supernaturally-inclined telekinetic teenaged victims of social exclusion and bullying either. This week “Carrie” is released, the remake of the Brian de Palma stone-cold classic, or the reworking of Stephen King’s wildly popular bestseller, however you choose to look at it. And indeed, however you initially came to it, it’s a story that’s probably familiar to you and its pigs-blood-at-the-prom-scene provides some of the most iconic horror imagery in popular culture.
But underlying the story of the Carrie White’s sudden, destructive use of her powers is something much less uncanny and inexplicable, though no less terrifying—her totally fucked up relationship with her mother, played in 1976 by Piper Laurie and in the new version by Julianne Moore. Bad mothers have formed the focus of two of our previous features, (here and here), and while there’s naturally some crossover, this time we’ve chosen to highlight films that specifically deal with mothers and daughters and the oddly hot-housed, magnified and sometimes distorted relationships that can spring up between them. It’s fascinating, fertile territory and there is a huge volume of fiction dedicated to navigating it, but here are five particularly apropos films for anyone who’s ever been a daughter, or anyone who’s ever had a mother.
“Autumn Sonata” (1978)
It's hard to trace the exact moment at which Ingmar Bergman's "Autumn Sonata" begins to break your heart (we're going to suggest it's about 5 minutes in, or just after the opening credits have faded) but once it begins it never, ever stops and will leave you in smithereens by its close. The utterly wrenching, devastatingly truthful story of a single day and night during which Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) a renowned concert pianist, comes to stay with her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullman), the film takes an ossified mother/daughter relationship and with a few quick cuts of Bergman’s scalpel-sharp dialogue lays it painfully bare in all its guilt, neglect, selfishness and repression. Charlotte hasn’t seen her daughter Eva for seven years, during which time Eva has married quietly devoted minister Viktor, and suffered the death of her little boy, whom Charlotte, it seems, never met. We get the impression that during this time Eva has been frequently writing to her mother, but Charlotte has often neglected to fully read the letters, caught up in a more glamorous life of world travel, career success and love affairs. Following the death of her longtime companion, Charlotte comes finally to visit, only to discover, to her unconcealed horror, that Helena, her other daughter, crippled and almost unable to speak due to a degenerative disease, is living with Eva, who took her from the home into which Charlotte had placed her.
Bergman employs certain narrative tricks, like allowing Viktor to address the camera directly, having Charlotte talk to herself and cross cutting, at a particularly vicious moment, between Eva’s evisceration of her mother, and Helena violently throwing herself from her bed and crawling across the floor in clear, vocal distress: how can the women, especially the caring, attentive Eva, not hear her? But the effect of these moments is never tricksy, instead they give depth and richness of allusion to, and occasionally even an odd relief from, the intensity of the emotional tug of war between the women. Both can be monstrous, yet neither is a monster, and the speed with which our sympathy swings from one to the other at times threatens whiplash, with almost every moment of grace and redemption immediately undercut by a look, or a casual, thrown-off comment of such pure malice that it makes you wince, and vice versa. With Bergman reportedly saying in 1995 ‘‘I was very much in love with my mother. She was a very warm and a very cold woman. When she was warm, I tried to come close to her. But she could be very cold and rejecting,’’ it's clear the personal resonance that this story has for him. And yet perhaps what is most remarkable about this most remarkable of films is the evenhanded understanding (if not necessarily sympathy) that we come away with for both characters, by the end. These pin-sharp accurate portraits of Charlotte and Eva as fully rounded, self-contradictory individuals inextricably in each others' orbit are what makes the film feel so eternal: they're different in every way from each other, but united by tethered histories and a few stubborn strands of DNA. We do not always like the family we’re doomed to love, and “Autumn Sonata” embodies that truth with flawless, cut-diamond clarity.
“Imitation of Life” (1959)
Not enough handkerchiefs in the universe for this one—Douglas Sirk’s unbelievably manipulative and luscious “issues movie” is an extraordinary example of a film that so completely defines its genre (the “women’s picture”) that it practically transcends it. Of course Sirk has been thoroughly and rightly reclaimed in recent years as an absolute master of the form, (our Sirk Essentials can be found here) imbuing syrupy melodrama with honest depth of feeling, and clothing it all in such dazzling, skilful technicolor photography that his films become so much more than the maudlin, chocolate box confections they were initially dismissed as. And “Imitation of Life,” the director’s last Hollywood picture, is certainly one of his masterpieces, and fits our purposes here entirely, dealing with not one but two mother/daughter relationships as central themes, but using them to highlight gender and race issues in a remarkably fearless and, certainly at the time, provocative manner.
Struggling actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) meets homeless, penniless Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) on the beach one day when their daughters, Susie and Sarah Jane run off to play together. Although times are tough all round, an immediate bond springs up between the women, across racial lines (in fact an alternate read on the film is almost as a love story between these two), and Lora offers mother and daughter a place to stay for the night. It’s an arrangement which becomes long-term, with Annie eventually (voluntarily) settling into a kind of housekeeper role, while Lora pursues her career. Sirk, however shifted the focus of the 1934 Claudette Colbert-starring film of the same name, more onto the daughters, and so we get to know Susie, the sweet, blonde daughter of Lora’s who’s chief gripe with her mother is the benign neglect she suffers as the ambitious Lora becomes more in demand. And Sarah Jane, a complicated, often resentful young girl whose light skin allows her to pass for white (which she desperately identifies with), but only at the cost of rejecting and repudiating her deeply loving mother Annie. The filial relationships become more central as the film goes on, and its second half is largely devoted to their maternal issues: Susie inevitably falls in love with her mother’s boyfriend (the extraordinarily handsome John Gavin) while Sarah Jane becomes wilder and eventually runs away to be a burlesque dancer, changing her name and denying all ties to her heartbroken, saintly mother.
The sanctification of Annie as the film’s central black character is of course problematic, but the hatefulness of Sarah Jane’s treatment of her, which of course reflects her own self-hatred and societally mandated shame at her black heritage, is an incredibly weighty topic to deal with so overtly. But Sirk doesn’t stop there, also knitting in an edge of class commentary and a sympathetic portrayal of Lora’s independence and ambition (for which she would surely be punished in another film). It’s a heady, affecting and lavishly laid-out buffet (Turner’s costume budget, for example was the highest ever for a picture to that date) topped off by an extraordinary Mahalia Jackson gospel performance which you will, we guarantee, be watching through tears.