Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a caretaker – not in any professional sense but as an overriding aspect of her identity. The middle-aged New Englander is a star exerting a gravitational pull on the planets that orbit her. Diane’s hospital-bound cousin, Donna (Deirdre O'Connell), has ovarian cancer and requires her companionship. Her wayward son, Brian (Jake Lacy), is drug-addled, unable to perform basic daily functions. Her other friends and family rely on her as much as the patrons of the free church supper where she volunteers weekly. As those bodies gradually spin off their axes and away from Diane, either by gaining their own agency or eventually dying, she experiences a whittling away of her supposed core self.
Director Kent Jones’ Diane is the antithesis of Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, another recent exploration of a middle-aged woman questioning her existence. While the latter takes a frothy approach to aging through the titular character’s quest for romantic fulfilment, Jones’ narrative-feature debut is spare and melancholy, realizing its protagonist’s dark night of the soul with visual and narrative austerity. Taking equal inspiration from patron saint of cinema Robert Bresson and the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, Diane is an impressive first outing by one of the best living film critics. It’s also a rich and moving character piece, anchored by a masterclass performance from one of the great unsung actors of the past 40 years, Mary Kay Place.
Much as the sun-drenched Los Angeles setting of Gloria Bell lent that film an appropriately light tone, the brittle Massachusetts winters of Diane reflect the insular, cloistered community that surrounds the eponymous character here. For Diane, small-town life is not the oppressive force it is so many other films with similar settings. It’s simply that her seemingly menial existence is all she’s ever known. She exchanges casseroles with a next-door neighbor regularly. She launders Brian’s clothing as a means of checking on him. She plays gin rummy with Donna in her hospital room. She carts her Aunt Mary (Estelle Parsons) around to see Donna and to family dinners. She frequents various down-home buffets with her best friend, Bobbie (comedy legend Andrea Martin). With each cycle of these routines, however, Diane struggles to balance her increasing resentment with her sense of duty. Jones makes this tension easy to sympathize with due to the repetitive structure of the film’s first half, an approach dictated by Diane’s regimen of selfless acts.
Place, however, creates a fully empathetic entry point into the character’s struggles. The actor got her start in earnest on Norman Lear’s cult soap-opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975-76), and although that television program was short-lived, she’s persisted since as a great supporting performer, featured in such diverse films as The Big Chill (1983), Being John Malkovich (1999), and It’s Complicated (2009). Diane is Place’s compendium of the types of roles in which she’s usually been cast – doting mother, cheery best friend, or benevolent authority figure – but the character is also a striking opportunity to share an authorial mark on a film through performance. (O’Connell also demonstrates she is capable of the same showcase portrayal.) In the hands of another performer, Jones’ occasionally sedate scripting might have been more obvious, but Place miraculously carries Diane’s lifetime of memories with her, lending nuance to even the smallest of scenes in a small, on-the-surface film.
That naturalistic approach means that there are thankfully no grandstanding monologues about a life never lived. Rather, each scene is suffused with a reckoning for a past that dictates the present. A family dinner filled with oft-told anecdotes perfectly encapsulates generational inheritance and rifts, and the revelation about Diane’s summer fling with Donna’s boyfriend gently reverberates throughout the film. Those memories consume Diane while her purpose as a communal anchor fades away. Jones then smartly structures the latter half of the narrative to mirror the perceived exponential compression of time that comes with aging, relying on increasingly elliptical – and sometimes even surreal – passages as Diane grows older. She turns to writing in a journal, capturing her dreams and attempting to reckon with her desolation through poetry: “My shadow is always with me,” she writes.
The Bressonian influence on Diane is clear from the start – the focus on process in the diegesis, the paring down of visual and narrative flourishes, the central figure in an existential and spiritual crisis – but the French master’s recurring theme of human communion with God becomes the main thrust of Diane’s latter half. The church binds Diane’s community, but when Brian, fresh from rehab, joins an oppressively evangelical Christian sect, she begins to doubt her own Christian focus. When she expresses these doubts to a former patron of the free church dinners, he attempts to comfort her: “When you served me, I always felt sanctified.” Diane ultimately becomes about leading a life in service of others, but its abrupt and alienating ending puts a fine point on the futility in giving up complete autonomy for a life of service. How do you value your life’s supposed purpose when all you’re left with is yourself, your memories, and your regret? Diane doesn’t have the answers, but its power lies in its questions.