” I am a lonely old woman in the hands of a lunatic.” Tatie Danielle
It is difficult to write about Tatie Danielle. A film hard to categorise. It is not black comedy nor satire as it is sometimes described being not black enough and too cynical.
The majority of reviews see the film as exposing a nasty old woman. ‘Tatie Danielle is a spoiled old lady who has become expert, after long years of study, at the art of imposing on other people. unpleasant and mean-spirited.” Roger Ebert.
Ginette Vincendeau (Sight and Sound) points out the film’s cynical view of the French provincial bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeois life of the Parisians. She tries to find psychological motivation for the nastiness of Tatie going as far as to suggest sexual frustration.
I would like to argue that one cannot separate Tatie from her environment and that to ignore the first 25 minutes of the film is to miss the skilful blend of the script and mise-en-scene to convey cinematically the problems of ageing and ageism. This rebellion of an old woman against a superficial and meaningless society cannot be interpreted as the character study of a nasty old woman without considering the accompanying social comments. Tatie uses society’s fear of death and ageing and the trappings of ageist attitudes for her vicious rebellion.
Mise-en-scene: Tatie Danielle’s house is a large provincial bourgeois property with period furniture, carpets and a lethal chandelier. The colours are brown, grey, rust. A picture of Edward Tatie’s husband who died over 45 years ago and a mirror are used to express Tatie’s inner voice. The garden is well-tended and the property shielded from the neighbours by a huge iron fence. The neighbours keep an eye on each other from behind the curtains and the local newspaper spreads the local gossip. They talk of their secondary home in the South and renovate their bathroom. The town centre has recently been pedestrianised and a beggar and cake shop are prominent. All these details are easily recognisable as provincial or suburban environment.
The Billards – Jean Pierre the nephew, Catherine his wife and their two children – live in a flat in Paris. Comments on the colour scheme by their visitors, the change of wallpaper to line Taties’ room feature in a couple of scenes and an additional few lines of dialogue from a minor character. The most visually funny touch on the obsession with interior design is the pale colour palette, from pale pinks to pale green, of the beauty salon echoed by the trivial conversations between beauticians and their clients.
In the hospital excited nurses gather around Tatie’s bed to watch her claim to fame as a supposedly abandoned old woman.
The care home seems to be comfortable with private rooms lining a corridor and the carers are sympathetic and respectful but in the staff room the doctor and nurses fool around and kiss and cuddle.
The final scene of liberation takes place on a terrace in a ski resort with a majestic view of the mountains.
Motifs punctuate the narrative. Tatie’s dog named ‘Attention!’ is big, black, aggressive, trained to bark at the postman and other dogs in the town centre. The family dog is small, old and does not smell too good. Gifts of flowers and boxes of sweets are given as token of good will but are meaningless or plainly rejected. Two car visits to Tourist Paris are used to express the change of mood in Tatie. The obsession with hair is also a recurrent motif and indicate the importance of appearance: Tatie remarks on Odile dishevelled hair, Tatie asks about Catherine’s dyed hair to which she replies ‘no just a colouring shampoo’, the teenager is blonder and finally, Catherine’s job is hair removal. Food and meal scenes are also a recurrent theme. Throughout, Tatie’s consolation and pleasure are cakes that she enjoys secretly on her own.
Tatie is a big woman dressed elegantly in black or grey. She has died black hair but with a patch of grey roots at the crown. She wear glasses when reading Barbara Cartland novels and is fond of watching soaps on TV. Her face is not particularly lined. Odile the housekeeper/maid/carer is a ‘little old woman’ who walks in little steps lunging ahead. She wears an apron and shawl. She has unkempt white hair, and a nervous cough. She is constantly whining and complaining but meekly subservient in actions. The nephew Jean Pierre and his wife Catherine are both conventionally dressed except for Catherine’s grotesque dress at their dinner with friends.
The story: The film begins with Tatie Danielle who summons Odile her maid/carer in the middle of the night. For viewers aware of old people’s care needs, this would refer to the problems of 24 hours care. But it becomes clear in the next 26 minutes that Tatie is far from being helpless. In this first section there are two stereotypes of old women. Tatie is dictatorial, manipulative, insulting. Odile is easily abused by her employer but compliant. She is tricked into believing that she is losing her memory and accused of intending to rob her mistress. In the street she is perceived as bullying Tatie who acts up like a child. During the family visit Tatie plays the role of the frail old woman ill in bed oppressed by her carer. Briefly, Odile is a kind little old woman victim and she is soon killed off leaving us with a Tatie who uses the vicissitudes of old age to use and abuse.
In this first section the scriptwriter has touched on: memory loss, night care, fear of being robbed, rebellion against diet restrictions, yearly visit of relatives, tyrannical manipulation of carer by the cared for. Tatie Danielle’s inner voice addresses her husband dead for over 40 years and asks to join him in death. This inner voice is self-deceiving throughout the film.
In the next section, it is ageist attitudes that the scriptwriter stresses. After having benefited from Tatie’s house sale and Odile’s inheritance the Billards welcome Tatie in their flat. The family’s ever so kindly in their intentions appear as sickly sweet. Catherine who thought that Tatie would play the role of grandmother/child minder for her children takes a very long time to realise that Tatie is not acting her designated part. Tatie locks her door against the intrusion of the 8 year old and later abandons him in the park. She is more astute in guessing that the teenager is gay when his mother does not. She criticises her niece for her relationship with a much younger man (he does leave her when she gets pregnant after 5 tries at sterility treatment). She makes meal time a nightmare for the family. She rejects the ‘fancy’ food, refuses to eat or makes herself sick with overeating. She hogs the television. She acts the victim in front of dinner guests and in a shocking moment of comedy of embarrassment leaves the sitting room to reveal a big patch of urine on her seat and her nightdress. It must be mentioned that the dinner guests are objectionable in their xenophobia: “the odious Greek”, or their snobbishness. the food comes from “an artisan charcutier”.
Catherine suffers the humiliations and stress inflicted by Tatie and does not protest, determined to be the exemplary example of a woman who cares for the old. Her attitude is reinforced by her clients at work who admire her for taking on the burden of looking after Tatie. It suddenly dawns on her husband that Tatie is ‘mechante’ (mean, nasty) but tells his sister not to tell Catherine. The only man in this story, his contribution consists of inviting his abandoned pregnant sister to go on holiday with them and to buy a TV set to compensate for their absence.
The taboo on incontinence both fecal and urinary is challenged by the film. Sandrine, the carer for the holiday is young. She dresses casually and she moves and walk in a determined and liberated way. She as not enough money to have her car mended. She does not intend to be bullied and treat Tatie as an equal and not as an invalid in need of special concessions. She declares that she is not being paid to be taken advantage of. Tatie’s reaction is to try and break Sandrine by making demands in the middle of the night, faking incontinence and finally soiling the toilet. When told that she is being paid for this Sandrine loses her cool and slaps Tatie.
From now on Tatie will treat Sandrine with respect and even offer her financial help and a piece of jewellery. They strike a kind of friendship when they both declare that they are not the sentimental type. But the honeymoon does not last when Sandrine requests one night off. Tatie refuses categorically. A row ensues. Tatie in hysterical distress threaten Sandrine with the sack but the carer leaves anyway.
The next scene shows a wreck of Tatie in torn nightgown in a flat devastated by rubbish of all kinds. A fire is starting in the kitchen while Tatie eats out of a tin of dog food. The rescuing of Tatie by firemen, the crowd assembling , the press interviews, the locum concierge are the realistic view of a tragic event in an ordinary street. In the middle of people who make comments about the cruelty of people towards the old, Sandrine face is seen. It is impossible not to think of tabloid or local paper headlines. Also the 2003 European Heat Wave comes to mind. (Ten days after their discovery 300 bodies of Parisians mainly old people had not been claimed.)
Recovering in Hospital Tatie is all sweetness, relishing in her fame that she shares with a group of nurses. The family is not prosecuted but will not take Tatie back. Contradictory comments about care homes had been made by various secondary characters: the only place for old people or the dreaded place where the old are abused. In the feared care home Tatie is in control and manipulates the other residents. She brings them to tears. She exchanges the permission to watch her cable tv for hot pepper , tabasco sauce, gherkins and of course cakes that she asked for. The closure image is of Tatie eating a cake and Sandrine taking a photo of her.
As seen above, the issues of ageing and ageism are exposed in a series of disjointed scenes and no narrative tension. There is no possibility for the viewer to identify with Tatie Danielle or the world depicted by the director. The extreme nastiness of Tatie obscures the critique of a society that infantalises the old and rebounds on the old woman stereotype as manipulative and bitter. Tatie Danielle has indeed become the expression used in France to refer to a very difficult old woman who oppresses all around her. The humour of embarrassment does not always work, and the comic effects of some scenes may be culture specific. But the fact that the film has been highly praised, has become a cult film and is being used in teaching environments points to a film that is very rich.
Note : The theme song is operatic but is not translated and it is difficult to appreciate its content.
Tatie Danielle (1990)
I first saw the film on a video cassette in the late 90s and showed it to our informal film group. I had just started to be interested in issues of the representation of the old woman in feature films and loved the film for its outrageous apparently ageist stance and its humour. At the time I did not record our meetings and all I remember is that one of our members, a social worker, stormed out of the room refusing to stay for the discussion : “it is an encouragement to abusers of the old and I am not interested”. In 2002 it was included in the BFI Older Women in Film Guide. 110 people viewed it and commented on it.
This month there were 7 of us: The immediate responses:
- It annoyed me. Very Negative.
- She is a nasty piece of work. Some people are like that– Annoying and boring.
- Old age themes not explored.
- Totally improbable. Hugely amusing.
- The unrelated events made me think of a comic strip.
The discussion however raised many interesting issues and disagreements.
The question of the poor characterisation of Tatie Danielle, her motives for behaving in this way, her unexplained sudden change of behaviour with Sandrine. T.D. Is so extremely nasty that we cannot take her as a plausible. The pushing of boundaries behaviour of T.D. If we replaced T.D with a character belonging to an ethnic minority would the film be acceptable?
Why has the film been such a success in France?