There’s a wonderful scene in the inconsistent satire Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy where an older lady, Mrs. Hurdicure, looks back fondly on a memory where her family came to visit her for Christmas. Ignoring the reality of the situation, her family spends less than 5 minutes in her house, drops off the presents and immediately leaves before they’ve even eaten the meal she prepared*, she’s focused on just the clichéd pleasure of what family visits are supposed to provide. In the present, Mrs. Hurdicure is part of a testing process for an experimental drug aimed at curtailing depression. The drug is supposed to maintain the feeling created by that fond memory to the point where “it feels like it’s 72 degrees in your head all the time.” Unfortunately, the side effects of the drug put patients in a sort of conscious coma, a vegetable with a smile on their face.
Now whatever temperature it is in the head of the titular character of Étienne Chatiliez’s Tatie Danielle is unknown. But it’s certainly hotter than 72 degrees. Danielle is someone who has been ignored by her distant relatives, which either caused her nastiness, or the nastiness is the reason they stay away. The fact that Chatiliez never really answers that question is one of the film’s greatest strengths and its greatest weakness. It works for the film because not only do we get to experience the widowed Danielle’s invective first hand, but another layer is added because it’s clear how meaningless her life is if she’s been so easily ignored. She thinks she holds the strings on everyone, by holding her late husband’s wealth over them as a tantalizing piñata, but they’re too interested in their own lives to bother much with learning anything but the surface details about her. But their lack of familiarity with their great Aunt feels like just lazy writing that could have been filled in had Chatiliez been willing to develop anyone but Danielle.
Not that a focus on one character is bad, necessarily; Tatie Danielle is wildly unsentimental about the elderly, and therefore often unpredictable. But her family, who inherited her after she drove her caretaker to death with little pricks of passive aggression, seems kind of dim. They’re shallow, obviously, otherwise they’d be more interested in bettering her as a person, but it takes them far too long to notice warning signs. Catherine Jacob, playing Catherine Billard, Danielle’s basically surrogate daughter, feels guilt about not being able to please a woman who doesn’t want to be pleased. Is that a character flaw, that she only wants what she can’t have, or is it another writing flaw? I’d tend towards the latter; she clearly cares for her husband, though she seems unaware of the goings-on of her closeted older son. She should have caught on to Danielle’s ways as soon as Danielle described Mr. Billard’s parents as “not very hardy” because they died during a flu epidemic.
And what should we make of Danielle’s relationship with her husband, whose picture she complains to? Yes, it’s clear that part of the reason for her malevolence is loneliness (and boredom), but Danielle, at one point, actually lies to her “husband,” as if we were to accept his existence as a sentient being, he only knew what happened if it was directly in front of his picture. There’s a thread here of delusion that Chatiliez doesn’t quite play up enough, though perhaps that might have interfered with Danielle’s willfully destructive behavior and how cognisant of it she might be. Danielle isn’t just hateful, she’s also a very messy eater, and is obsessed with soap operas and romance novels. So, in a sense, she’s someone to be ostracized, which is funny when it actually happens.
It might have seemed like an obvious plot turn for the nurse that the Billards hire (Sandrine, played by Isabelle Nanty) to take care of Danielle while they vacation in Greece to be just as impatient and lacking social graces as Danielle, but Chatiliez handles these sequences very crisply, with a lot better pacing than the rest of the comparatively sluggish and overlong film. Sandrine isn’t just a mirror for Danielle; she reveals that Danielle’s life stopped when her husband died, likely when she was in her mid 20s, so she has the same level of maturity as Sandrine. Sandrine won’t put up with the obligatory pleasantries that Danielle requires to function, or indulging her phony illnesses, but it has nothing to do with feeling overworked and underappreciated, but rather finding Danielle’s comfort to be low on her list of priorities. Sandrine is just as shallow as the Billards, she simply avoids the front of putting up with Danielle’s nonsense.
It may seem ridiculous to look at the behavior of shallow people as having some sort of subtext, but in its own way, Tatie Danielle is like a very elaborate episode of Seinfeld, where terrible people inflate issues that shouldn’t even register as a mild irritant suddenly become valid reasons to emotionally disconnect from the outside world. Ignoring this behavior, like all bouts of studied passive aggression, is what destroys it, because in order to be pushed around by someone, you have to respect them enough to want to read between their lines. Tatie Danielle is like a treatise on how to defang passive aggression, which would clearly benefit us all.
* Sample dialogue of the memory? “Sorry we’re a few hours late, there, Ma, but you know how the kids… uh… hate old people.” “So I hear dad’s dead. Hey, is that egg nog?”