There’s a famous passage from Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” that continues to resonate because of how plainly it speaks to the bittersweet shortsightedness of being alive: “Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really… And yet it all seems limitless.”
Of all the references sewn into the fabric of Kent Jones’ first narrative feature — the revered film critic and programmer nods to Paul Schrader, Bob Dylan, and executive producer Martin Scorsese among others in his chilly amuse-bouche of artistic inspirations — Bowles isn’t high on the list. Jones is too hyper-literate and omnivorous to be unfamiliar with the book, but even filmmaker Matías Piñeiro and Stephin Merritt serve as more explicit muses for this intimate drama.
And yet, Bowles’ writing — his resigned insistence that life only feels infinite because we’re blind to its borders — could almost double as a plot synopsis for Jones’ film. That lack of perspective is a major theme of “Diane,” but in a way it’s also just what happens in it, Jones delicately transmuting the idea into the mundane action of modern life. Even on its surface, this is an epic story about a woman staring death in the face and struggling to see its reflection in her own life. It’s as depressing as it sounds, but told with such lucid sadness that it eventually achieves a hallucinatory calm (similar to “Synecdoche, New York” in how it uses the ordinary to reach the transcendental, but much simpler in its approach).
We meet Diane (70-year-old Mary Kay Place, the “New York, New York” star acing the best role of her long career) as she sleeps at the foot of her cousin’s hospital bed, the terminal cancer patient (Deirdre O’Connell) wide awake and looking at her with whatever pity she can still muster for someone else. Diane is like a sailor using her bare hands to scoop water from the hull of a sinking ship: She’s a retired widow who now spends most of her time doting on the people in her life and doing what little she can to ease their burden (playing gin, offering company, serving food at a local soup kitchen).
As the movie goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that she feels responsible for most of the damage. Is her apparent selflessness motivated by love or guilt? Is it her fault that her large adult son (a petulant and phenomenal Jake Lacy) is a heroin addict? As long as she keeps making her lists and checking things off, she’ll be okay. As long as she keeps moving — driving endlessly from one gray suburb to another — she doesn’t have to think about such things.
And while “Diane” has an evocative sense of location (upstate New York is a fine stand-in for the winter dreariness of western Massachusetts), the film is less attuned to place than it is to the distance between places, and how much of our lives ultimately happen there. In a state of suspended animation. Everything is in constant flux, and yet — since we spin forward at the same relative speed of the world around us — we’re naturally distracted from the transience of all things. You can see it, but only when something causes you to unfix your eyes from a spot on the road. For Diane, that trigger is often a death, but it can also be something as small as a meal at a diner that used to be a different restaurant. Everybody knows that they’re going to die, and yet it still requires a little nudge from the universe to remember that they’re not going to live forever.
As you might have guessed, “Diane” isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. And yet, for all of its morbidity (and the funereal score that Jones layers over his film like a frost), it’s not an unpleasant thing to watch. The cast imbues each scene with a gentle vibrancy. O’Connell’s edge, Lacy’s defensive rage, Phyllis Somerville’s wit, and Andrea Martin’s warmth all serve as helpful foils for Place’s disoriented stoicism. The collective humanity on display keeps the story grounded, as each loss contributes to a fine portrait of that eventual moment in life when the wheels come off the wagon and everything seems to break down before your eyes.
But what begins as a well-drawn, anti-dramatic character study begins to uncurl into something more cosmic as the deaths mount around Diane. Time starts to skip forward, people disappear, and the film acquires the hallucinatory feeling of life itself. It grows even more elliptical and dreamlike, as Jones shifts our focus from the known to the unknown, from the life of the body to the life of the spirit (it’s here where Jones’ background as a critic becomes evident — the deceptive casualness of the film’s first half bleeds into the more transgressive formalism of its second). Lacy’s character in particular experiences a change that foregrounds this slippery dynamic with amusing results; the actor — so good as the young heel in “Carol” — perfects the art of leading with his needs.
One late scene she shares with Place is especially strong for how it brings a sense of closure to “Diane,” clarifying how this humble film often feels so expansive. Not unlike David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” Jones’ fiction debut (he has previously directed documentaries on film history) embraces the disconnect between the modesty of its size and the infinitude of its scale, using the former as a lens through which to better see the latter. It’s a pinhole portrait of life on Earth; a non-judgmental story about trying to reconcile meaning with meaningless before the well runs dry and it rains again.
“Diane” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.