Britnee: I’ve always had a fondness for mean old ladies. When women age into their 70s and 80s, there’s a social expectation for them to be sweet and nurturing. A frail, wrinkled woman with a loose grey bun carrying a tray of fresh baked cookies for visitors is the “sweet old lady” image that we’re all too familiar with, and I truly hope I never fall into that mold. My great grandmother was one of my favorite people because she was known for being a rude, gaslighting troublemaker. As she aged into her 80s, she would complain about her self-diagnosed diabetes while sneaking cake at any chance she got, and she would tell everyone how her children didn’t want to take care of her while they were waiting on her hand and foot. And she would say it all in French! I’m so glad that there is a film that captures her essence (in a more exaggerated way): the 1990 French black comedy, Tatie Danielle.
Auntie Danielle (Tsilla Chelton) is the ultimate mean old lady. She’s an elderly widow who loves to torment just about everyone who crosses her path, especially her elderly housekeeper, Odile (Neige Dolsky). Auntie Danielle calls Odile “a whore” while making purposeful messes for her to clean up, steps on flowers she plants in her flowerbed, and guilts her into getting onto a ladder to dust a chandelier, which is the last thing she ever cleans as she falls off of it and dies. With no one to help with her day-to-day routine, Auntie Danielle divides her estate between her great-niece and great-nephew, then moves to Paris to live with her great-nephew and his family. She brings her shenanigans with her, and they eventually begin to realize what a terror she is. When they have guests over, she implies that she is neglected. She refuses to eat her great-nephew’s wife’s cooking, but she sneaks pastries at any chance she gets. When taking her great-nephew’s youngest son to the park, she abandons him to find sweets and makes her way back home without him. These are just a few of the increasingly horrible stunts that she pulls.
Her family desperately looks for someone to stay with Auntie Danielle while they go on a family vacation in Greece, and at the last minute, Sandrine (Isabelle Nanty) shows up to save the day. Auntie Danielle soon realizes she’s met her match as Sandrine doesn’t put up with her shit. At all. The two gradually bond through a very bizarre love-hate relationship that is unexpectedly heartwarming and a blast to watch.
Brandon, what are your thoughts on Auntie Danielle’s bad behavior? Was it hard to watch or did you enjoy her cruel antics just as much as I did?
Brandon: There are a lot of things that are hard to watch in this movie, but most of them have to do with larger cultural circumstances of elderly abuse & abandonment. Since visitations from her family are rare enough to be a major event and she spends most of her alone time commiserating with a portrait of her dead husband Edouard, you get the sense that Auntie Danielle got to be this awful purely through her isolation from the world outside. As she’s shuffled off to apathetic nursing homes or the care of a physically abusive grannysitter (who does eventually become her friend after a couple harsh slaps to the face), it’s clear that the elderly have plenty of good reasons to be sour & misanthropic. Because she’s an intensely spiteful little shit, she often weaponizes everyone’s sympathy for her frailty & isolation in old age as a way to punish her supposedly ungrateful family, posing herself in a wrecked, shit-smeared apartment where the only available sustenance is cans of dog food so that they look like total monsters (a set piece that’s so visually over-the-top in comparison to the rest of the film that it could’ve doubled as an art installation). Her spitefulness being a result of culture-wide cruelty & disinterest in the elderly does make the film a tough watch in patches, especially once you realize how much better she can be as a person by simply making one friend, Sandrine.
All that said, yes, I was delighted by Auntie Danielle’s cruel antics. With the exception of a few casually racist, homophobic, and misogynistic insults she tosses around just to inflict maximum harm, it’s fun to cheer on her miserable misbehavior. Tatie Danielle often plays like the geriatric counterpoint to Problem Child, wherein the titular scamp is such an absurdly awful little shit that you can’t help but cheer on their misanthropic pranks. The main difference is that Problem Child is an 80min Hollywood comedy that’s scored by endless replays of “Bad to the Bone”, while this is a two-hour French film with an ironic air of buttoned-up sophistication. Both are great, though, and both rely on the humor of their antiheroes transgressing against ageist expectations of proper social etiquette. If the POV character was Auntie Danielle’s nephew or wife, this might’ve been a nightmare comedy of manners about how careful most adults are to not hurt the feelings of their sour, Conservative elders despite receiving none of that consideration in return. Instead, we see the world through Auntie Danielle’s beady little eyes, and so it’s fun to watch her expertly fuck up the daily lives of her boring, phony family. I was particularly delighted in how much disdain she shows in her great-grandnephew despite him being an adorable cherub of a child – abandoning him at a public park so she can enjoy some ice cream in solitude. Delicious.
If there’s anything that justifies Tatie Danielle‘s pretentions as a sophisticated European drama, as opposed to a wide-appeal goofball comedy, it’s in Auntie Danielle’s uneasy friendship with Sandrine. They have a very complicated relationship as bitter kindred spirits that transcends the generational warfare of every other character dynamic, and it’s the one part of the film that does not play into its Problem Child for Miserable Old Biddies novelty factor. Hanna, what did you think of how that relationship develops and where it goes? What would the movie be like without it?
Hanna: I loved Auntie Danielle’s relationship with Sandrine! I thought it redirected the tone of the film in a really interesting, refreshing way. The first 45 minutes or so are chock full of her passive-aggressive and outwardly aggressive barbs, and I assumed the film would follow a straightforward escalation of interpersonal violence between Auntie Danielle and her ill-prepared friends and family. I was as shocked as she was when she met her match, and there’s a special kind of joy that springs up from their commiseration as cruel, selfish women (I could not stop laughing when they abandoned that poor dog on the street). I also love how their relationship shows a real element of tragedy in Auntie Danielle’s character. Although she’s delightful to watch, she’s not all that sympathetic, and I couldn’t really relate to her beyond an exercise in wish fulfillment of my most petty urges and grievances. Once she finally does find a kindred spirit (beyond her deceased husband) in Sandrine, she isn’t really sure how to extend herself beyond giving money to Sandrine and monopolizing her time, which ultimately drives Sandrine off. Auntie Danielle seems like the kind of person who needs exactly one friend, then sabotages any relationship she forms as soon as the other person shows any interest in anything besides her. As strange as it may sound, it was kind of touching to watch a real desire for connection wrapped in jealousy creep into her petulant nastiness.
I also thought that Sandrine’s character gave a little glimpse into who Auntie Danielle may have been (or wanted to be) as a younger woman. Like Britnee mentioned, it was inspiring to see a model of feminine expression that was totally divorced from the feminine ideal of compassion and selflessness, and I appreciated the fact that we got a representation of that kind of freedom across two generations. Of course, bad manners can also isolate you from the world until you find your rotten soulmate. Boomer, do you think Auntie Danielle is a subversive model of womanhood that we should strive for? Does this film damn Auntie Danielle and Sandrine’s bad behavior, or offer it up as an appealing alternative?
Boomer: I think that, overall, I had a very different reading of the film than everyone else. I should note right out of the gate that, even as a child, I couldn’t stand Problem Child, Clifford (the 1994 one with Martin Short, no big red dogs in sight), Dennis the Menace, or any other movies that were about monstrous children, with the sole exception of Drop Dead Fred. When I was a kid, because we lived in a trailer that was pretty far out in the country and therefore outside of any real restrictions on fireworks, my parents hosted a church gathering for New Year’s Eve when I was 5 or 6. We were pretty poor at that time, and there were probably about 5 families, all with at least one kid, and I remember with great clarity the way that the kids from church—all of whom lived in real houses and had real closets full of name brand non-Big Lots toys, and who didn’t have to share half of that space with a Rainbow D4C—absolutely destroyed my tiny bedroom and the very few things that I owned and cherished and which weren’t hand-me-downs from my older cousins. There was bed jumping and book tearing, one of them shot an arrow into my wall with a toy bow, and a precious balsa wood model that was a gift from my grandmother that Christmas and which she and I had built together was smashed into a dozen pieces which were then ground into the cheap, ugly carpet. It was an utter nightmare. To me, there’s nothing funny about seeing children engaging in wanton (and costly) acts of destruction, and I know that without context that makes me sound like an insufferably stodgy old coot, but I think the fact that I actually enjoyed Drop Dead Fred both as a kid and in my most recent viewing just a couple of years ago illustrates something about me: the destruction that Marsha Mason’s mother character in Drop Dead Fred has to deal with is deserved. She’s a horrible mother: restrictive, cruel, and criminally unfit, up to and including killing a child’s imagination because she tracked mud into the house, and then later dragging her now-adult daughter to a child psychologist when she exhibits unusual behavior. All John Ritter wanted was a family, and all Charles Grodin wanted was to marry Mary Steenbergen, which is totally reasonable.
What’s strange to me, then, is that I find Auntie Danielle to be, well, not sympathetic, but at least fun to watch. We actually know very little about what her life was like before the film starts, other than that at some point in the past she was married, she has not only the wealth that her stately home manifests but also her stipend from her husband’s military service, and that she employs a maid, whom she regularly abuses. Anything else that we suppose about her life prior to that point is purely assumed and projected, and at this moment we’re all bringing to the table our own lived experience of COVID purgatory, which I think is coloring those perceptions and presumptions in a way that’s altering our feelings about Danielle and her situation. Of course, my reading of Danielle is also purely speculative, but I don’t think that there’s any real indication that she was ever a nice person, or that her temperament is the result of being isolated. To me, her disdain for her family reads as innate and not retaliatory; she mentions in passing that they rarely come to visit, but she doesn’t bother reading the mail that they send her, and despite being perfectly fine until almost the moment that they walk through the door, she retreats to bed and pretends to be ill in order to hasten their departure. Her neighbors seem to be on friendly enough terms with her servant Odile and ask after Danielle, so she could have a social life if she wanted, but she’d rather ruin pretend to be nice and then mock her neighbors behind their backs with snide faces. She destroys Odile’s hard work with the flowers and also torments her by interrupting the older, dottier woman in the middle of a thought until she completely disrupts anything Odile may be thinking about. Danielle pesters the poor woman about cooking something for the family but also makes the process of doing so as difficult as possible by acting like a petulant child every step of the way by delaying the grocery trip for as long as possible, hiding the grocery money in her pocket (and accusing Odile of stealing it), refusing to get out of the car at the bank, and then encouraging her dog to bite the elderly maid. Their conversation about Danielle’s continual pestering about the chandelier indicates that she’s been giving Odile a hard time about the fixture for some time, indicating to me that she’s been trying to make this “accident” happen for a long time. She’s cruel to the point of monstrosity, needling her niece about the fact that her younger boyfriend is a commitment-phobe, lying about her food tastes so that she can find fault in everything that Catherine cooks and causing her to fret about the possible deleterious health issues that could be causing Danielle to lose her appetite (while secretly gorging on pastries), and even spying on their marital relations. I don’t see any indication that she was ever a nice person or that there’s even a reason that she is the way that she is.
She’s just evil and she loves it. And I loved watching it.
I would fundamentally disagree with the statement that Danielle’s family is phony, however. As noted above, I’m normally only able to stomach this kind of thing if the person whose life is being ruined had somehow earned karmic retribution, but that’s not the case here. I find her treatment of them despicable in the abstract despite being comical in action; beyond all of the people Danielle mocks or passive-aggressively torments in passing, we spend a lot of time with this family, and while I won’t argue with the point that her nephew’s family is dull, they seem completely genuine and well-meaning to me. They certainly are boring, in an Anna Karenina “All happy families are alike” way, and there’s a different version of this movie where they’re dissatisfied with the banality of their urban lives and their cantankerous aunt comes and shakes them out of their doldrums, but Tatie Danielle is not that movie. The parents have an active, fidelitous sex life, and they take no issue with their older son’s exploration of traditionally feminine art forms or try to police or interfere with the closeted activity that is going on under their noses. The younger son never acts like a spoiled brat or expresses frustration about having to give up his room for Danielle and only wants to spend time with her. I even interpret their loving treatment of their elderly family dog as an explicit metaphor for both their willingness and suitability to take care of an aging loved one to the very end (especially in comparison to Danielle’s willingness to send her well-trained dog to live with someone else, without a backward glance or even another thought). It’s not their fault that Jean-Pierre has the misfortune of being the one of the last two living relatives of a woman who gets off on making other people miserable.
I’d also fundamentally disagree with the concept that anything that happens to Danielle in this film is abusive or uncalled for; although I had a moment of abject horror in the moment when Sandrine slaps her across her face, as it’s a shocking act of violence, Danielle’s behavior to that point—not merely thoughtless but actively unkind, dishonest, and child-endangering—earned that small measure of recompense, and more. I do find it odd that Sandrine, the biggest foil to our villain protagonist, appears so late in the film, arriving right at the 65-minute mark, at which point we’ve spent nearly 40 minutes in the Billard family home (Odile’s tragic fall happens at minute 25 precisely). When she did, I started to think that this film would simply be a kind of picaresque of this delightfully awful woman ruining the lives of all who have the bad luck to touch her, but instead Sandrine gives her a taste of her own medicine. When she seems to fret over the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, but it also seems like a proverbial light bulb is going off over her head, because she immediately starts to manipulate the emotions of everyone around her by reciting those horrors as if they are happening to her when she is the abuser: she lies to her family about how Odile treats her, including supposed physical beatings, and then sets the woman up to injure herself; she expresses worry about being abandoned in her later years, then abandons both a preschooler and an elderly dog in the park, with only one of them making it home; she destroys the Billard apartment with feces and fire and eats dog food solely so that she can turn public sentiment against her unlucky family on a societal scale. And the moment she finds herself in a home, it’s not the staff there who are cruel to the little old ladies (although they probably could stand to do a little less daytime grab-assery), it’s Danielle who menaces the other septuagenarians.
Danielle is an artist and her medium is hate, and I don’t think that the film damns or praises Danielle or Sandrine, and I’m not sure it would work if it really did either. Danielle’s hard to live with, but that makes those of us in the audience instinctively want to stay on her good side, so when we’re alone with her in a scene as she makes faces at a closed door or behaves like a child, we feel like we’re in on the joke and on the inside of that mean girl bubble. It would be impossible to take a person of such intense hypocrisy and callous malice and make that person aspirational in a completely unironic way, but by keeping us on the inside of that bullying for so long, it makes it harder to condemn her either, especially when she has a genuine emotional connection for what’s likely the first time since Edouard died, if not the first time in her life. It’s more documentarian than that, and it makes no moral judgments. I’ve certainly said a lot about how detestable her behavior is, but I also couldn’t look away or stop laughing.
Britnee: When Catherine answers the telephone, she takes off her massive clip-on earrings. This happens a lot, and she always makes it look so elegant. Cracks me up every time!
Hanna: As much as I liked the twists this story took, I was all in for the passive-aggressive biddy relationship between Auntie Danielle and Odile in the beginning. I would have loved to see a version of this movie that starts when they move in together and escalates into old lady mayhem.
Boomer: I actually don’t think that Danielle ever loved Edouard. This is probably my biggest presumption about what we’re supposed to think about Tatie Danielle’s life before the film starts, but I think that they married when she was very young and he was perhaps … not. The vignette photograph that Danielle has of him looks positively Edwardian; I did some research to see if I could determine if he was wearing a uniform from WWI or WWII, since Danielle doesn’t specify, but I can’t be certain. This painting is of a French officer’s uniform and is dated 1940. Assuming that Danielle, like her actress Tsilla Chelton, was born in 1919, and given that she has no more recent pictures of him than 50 years prior, it seems like Danielle married a man in his 30s or 40s when she was twenty or so, and he died shortly thereafter. My personal headcanon is that Danielle has simply had half a century to forget that, when he was alive, she hated him and got her jollies making him unhappy, too.
Brandon: For the first half-hour of this, I was starting to worry that the social isolation & systemic cruelty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was making me as miserable & misanthropic as Auntie Danielle. I could hear my own constant, cynical complaints about how stupid & ugly the world has become echoed in her hatred for every human being in her eyesight. Then she joked that her family member was “silly” for “dying of the flu” in response to news of a lethal viral outbreak, and I was reassured that I’m actually not this terrible . . . yet. Once I get callous about COVID deaths, I’ll know I’m in trouble.
Next Month: Hanna presents Oliver! (1968)
-The Swampflix Crew