Film Review — Grey Gardens (1975). An example of cinema verité in its purest form.
The choice in filmmaking technique in which Big and Little Edie Beale’s stories were told through in Grey Gardens was influenced by the style of cinema verité in a number of interesting ways, some of which were quite new to me. An initial example I can point to where this technique was used was how the intro titles of the film showed a newspaper article to establish the setting and introduce the audience to the characters and their individual backstories. This is a scene where the use of narration would have typically taken place in a more conventional documentary format, but the absence of any narration, using only the dialogue of the Beale’s is a very strong cinema verité technique. By not including any narration and only relying on the voices of the main character’s being documented in the film to narrate the story, it reveals itself as “truthful cinema”, which is the literal English translation of cinema verité.
The lack of any direction from the camera operators and crew is also a prime example of cinema verité’s “fly on the wall” style, and at times it feels like an almost too intimate look into these character’s lives, as the camera is seemingly always just there, capturing every vulnerable conversation held between the Beale’s and continuing to record as the two sit in their beds, singing and arguing, and revealing their true selves in a very up close and personal way. A more traditional filmmaker likely would have approached this story using a voiceover narration to explain and introduce the characters at the start of the film, and probably use narration throughout the entirety of the film to give further insight into the life stories and history of these subjects. Instead, the cinema verité style used in Grey Gardens lets the characters reveal everything the audience needs to know about them, from health issues, to their biggest regrets in life and all of their insecurities and personal struggles.
By hearing from the character’s themselves, directly from their own mouths, it makes everything you hear and see in the film seem a lot more real, impossible to script and unstaged. Does this make for a more immersive and interesting film viewing experience? Not exactly, as I can’t deny there were moments that I felt were a little directionless at times. Did it make for a very believable, personal and raw documentary, that stayed true to the definition of what a documentary should be? I absolutely think it did, and by using the cinema verité techniques that were present throughout the film, it really separates itself as a documentary and can’t be confused with any feature film that could come out of this setting and story featuring the characters of Grey Gardens.
I think that the cinema verité form adds to the story of Big and Little Edie Beale by allowing them to be the voices of their own story and it feels easier to digest knowing that these two subjects are not being condescended by a film’s narrating voice, for example, like in some other traditional documentaries. There is no opinion given on these characters, and the film doesn’t tell us what to feel or what to think of the Beale’s. They simply exist how they are in their honest everyday form, and this made me as a viewer feel like I was part of their world and witnessing their behaviour and eccentricity with my own eyes. Perhaps something that is detracted from the story of the Beale’s by using the cinema verité technique could be that at times I felt confused by the story and wasn’t always sure as to what was going on, on screen. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to be spoon fed as an audience member, and this documentary stands out as an unforgettable viewing experience for that reason, which is exactly what every filmmaker is trying to do when producing such a film.