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Discovering the Recipe to Happiness: A Critical Analysis of Mildred Pierce (1945)

The American drama, Mildred Pierce, takes typical American hardships, such as social-economic standings and complex family dynamics, and makes them multidimensional by incorporating murder, self-indulgence, and deceit into the plot. The presentation of time, transitions, lighting, and dialogue throughout the film help communicate relatable themes such as social class, devotion, and greed as the protagonist eventually finds tranquility.

     Mildred Pierce begins to shift between past and present when the protagonist discloses her back story to the police. This film technique brings to light Mildred’s character development and eventually exposes her husband’s murderer. It also intrigues the viewer, leaving them constantly guessing who the killer is. For example, in the introduction, the viewer is lead to believe that Mildred is the culprit and later that her ex-husband is guilty of the crime. As the movie progresses, the viewer is even tricked into suspecting Wally killed Mildred’s husband out of jealousy. This enhances the shock the audience feels when the film ultimately reveals that Veda is the true murderer.

Mildred’s narration is incorporated in several of the film’s transitional scenes. Ironically, these transitions expose the transitions that exist in her life, such as her being hired as a waitress, opening her business, and returning from Mexico. During each of these scenes, the audience learns that she achieves something new and becomes more independent, despite her constant need to please her daughter. The sequences of images fading into one another along with Mildred’s narration creates a personal connection between the audience and the protagonist and makes the viewer feel as if they were venturing through time with her.

Though Mildred’s success is apparent, the dialogue makes it clear that she is displeased. In her lines, it can be inferred that her increased drinking is due to the innate need she has to please her daughter, who is unsatisfied with every aspect of their life. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Mildred admits to not drinking very much. However, towards the end, as Monte apologizes for not have anything to mix the alcohol with, Mildred states “I like it straight”, leaving Monte and the audience stunned by this abrupt change. Throughout Mildred’s development, Veda is constantly dragging her down. Mildred believes her purpose in life is to provide for her daughters, which is proven when Beragon says “Your reason to do anything is usually Veda”. Through dialogue, Mildred is shown to be entirely devoted to Veda.

Veda, however, does not show the same dedication. She exemplifies a direct contrast to her mother, showing that there are people whose main concerns can center around their family, but also there are others that only care about bettering themselves, regardless of who they hurt. For example, when Mildred is spending the majority of her time baking and selling pies to buy Veda a dress, Veda is shown as critical and unappreciative with no regard for her mother’s effort. This sequence purposely shows Mildred overhearing Veda’s negative response to illustrate that, despite Veda’s obvious apathy towards her mother’s hard work, Mildred will continue to spoil her daughter because of her desire to please her.

To symbolize Mildred’s future happiness and the fact that she no longer feels the burden of trying to satisfy her daughter, the very last scene shows Mildred and Bert walking into a bright light together. This conclusion makes a point to show that despite Mildred’s inferiority when it comes to wealth and social class, she still has the potential to become a self-actualized individual. Mildred’s character conveys an important message that the audience hopes to be true: in order to live a truly happy life, one must find a proper balance between caring for others, and oneself.

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3 responses to “Discovering the Recipe to Happiness: A Critical Analysis of Mildred Pierce (1945)

  1. ltimlin ⋅

    I appreciate that you ventured at what Mildred’s life would become knowing she no longer had to strive for Veda’s approval. You mention Mildred as the protagonist, which is completely true; but I didn’t see her as a protagonist at the film’s beginning. Seeing her in her luxurious fur coat, I imagined her to hold the same values as her bratty daughter.

  2. kstedem ⋅

    The fact that you make mention of the flashback is a winner in my opinion. The flashback in this film showed the different side of Mildred’s character and how she grew throughout the film. It also was a way for the plot to move from Mildred’s story of why her ex husband could not have killed Monte, and it turns the flashback into the actual murder mystery story.

  3. I agree with you how the transitions of the film are, in their own right, part of the narration. Through the flashbacks we see how Mildred had changed over the years in some aspects but not in all of them, and the final shot really reiterated for me that she’ll never feel complete without someone needing her, whether it’s her daughter or the men in her life. She had become a stronger, self-sufficient woman over the years of her flashback narration; yet despite the fact that she worked hard and had become fairly successful on her own merits, she still felt the desperate need to please the people in her life. I think a true testament to her potential future happiness would have been if the final shot was her walking, alone, symbolizing that she need only please herself.

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