The Cage of Motherhood in ‘Hydrangea’

Filmmaker Jim Cumming’s Hydrangea depicts a mother struggling with her allotted role in life.

The second film from Jim Cumming’s three part series Still Life—each engaging with a different contemporary issue—Hydrangea hones in on themes of gender roles and mental health. The film opens with a shot of Hannah staring off emptily. Then a fake smile comes across her face and the camera zooms out to reveal she is on an infomercial set with her son, Tony, and husband, David—she says her line and strokes her son’s hair until the scene cuts. Hannah and her husband bicker offset during a filming break, discussing their son missing school—the argument devolves as Hannah’s husband becomes angry, wanting her to just get through so they can be paid. As their argument escalates, Hannah accuses David of being drunk; he fires back saying she has broken from her antidepressant regimen. They return to filming and the cameramen tell Hannah she is coming across as uninterested—they try another take and the camera zooms in on Hannah’s once again empty expression. The film ends with a twist that questions what is real and what is a projection of Hannah’s mind.

One notable feature of Hydrangea is its use of a single take to play with audience perception of characters and the sequence of events, a feature use in all the films from Still Life. The film opens with an image of a happy family—however, the camera’s zoom out disrupts this imaging, showing it to be nothing more than a performance. The next phase occurs when Hannah and her husband fight off to the side—the new reality showing Hannah oppressed by a verbally abusive and potentially alcoholic husband. The return to the film set creates an entirely new picture—the happy family image is shown to be a thin façade rife with cracks. The final camera movement—a zoom out to reveal that Hannah is in her own house and the film set is in her mind—create a new sense entirely. Hannah’s sanity is brought into question—not that her struggles are any less legitimate, but highlighting the psychological toll of trying to morph into an ideal maternal figure.

Hydrangea expertly explores the performative nature of parenting. For example, as Hannah and David snipe at one another, they smile and wave at Tony, compelled to put on a good face for their son. Following the fight, the cameraman asks Hannah if she is alright, to which she replies “yeah, totally, always.” Both David and Hannah are warped by their parental roles. For David, his becoming “a father with responsibilities” is what has caused him to become so “horrible.” For Hannah, being shunted into the box of motherhood has cost her mental solvency.

Hydrangea mines the layers of a taboo subject—the dissatisfied mother. Hannah expresses many of the limiting aspects of motherhood (i.e. “I wanted a mini cooper” and “do you think I like dressing like this?”). Further, the construction of the film set in her mind expresses the pressure she feels; the comments of the film crew stating she is coming of as “an uninterested mom” reflects societal expectations. Her comment “I’ll be mommy again” shows her mental strain.

Hydrangea hauntingly depicts the challenges of modern motherhood—the simultaneously narrow yet vast expectations.

Samantha Bloom

Samantha is a graduate from Stanford University with a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Her previous writing projects have included a satirical Silicon Valley musical, a short film that moves the story of Jekyll and Hyde onto social media, a short film about female embodiment in the modern age, and short stories galore. She's an obsessive fan girl with an affinity for 80s pop, science fiction, and quirky historical facts. She hopes to be a writer for TV and/or film one day.

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