As far as slices of life go, Grey Gardens is especially bizarre. An eccentric little film about two eccentric ladies, it brings to mind that line in Pulp Fiction: “Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character”. Well, both Big Edie and Little Edie have the best of both worlds. What unique creatures they are. I had to stop myself from calling them creations because they feel too large for life. You can’t help but be struck by them.
This film by the Maysles is appropriately cluttered and busy. The soundtrack consists of little more than these two women bickering together, singing or screaming over one another. It’s quite the trip and avoids being grating because it is so surreal and fascinating. The Grey Gardens estate of the title looks like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It is a vast decaying mansion with countless rooms closed off and is overrun by cats and raccoons. The two women live happily alongside the animals and never see them as pests or intruders. Big Edie spends most of her time singing in bed with the cats as her loyal audience. Little Edie scurries from room to room, digging up memories, telling stories and generally guiding the Maysles and the film through the long, colourful history of the Beale family. Many of the stories sound like myth or legend, but as both Edies look like legend made flesh themselves, it’s difficult to disregard them as untrue.
I really had no idea what to expect from Grey Gardens but it proved to be a very striking, amusing and bemusing little documentary. There’s not much structure at work so the film does start to feel aimless and repetitive the closer it gets to the finish line but the overall sensation it emits – that of utter bric-a-brac – is pretty charming. There aren’t many documentary subjects as memorable on a purely sensory level as the Beales. The real world may have shunned and disregarded them but in front of a camera, they feel a home. That their legacy is now immortalised through this film feels appropriate. Grey Gardens is a decaying enchantment and a busy document of two very distinctive souls. Dysfunctional, yes, but no less divine.