Author Joan Didion at home in Hollywood.

When Joan Didion talks, she gestures with her entire upper body. Her arms, bent at the elbow, extend outwards as her wrists unfurl, reaching out towards the camera to punctuate each sentence. It feels, in these moments, as though the words inside of her can’t get out quickly enough on their own — like it takes all of her physical force to externalize them. But even now, at 82 years old, it is clear that Didion’s rhetorical proficiency remains as expert as ever. Substantial sections of The Center Will Not Hold, a biographical documentary directed and produced by her nephew Griffin Dunne, consist of Didion reading excerpts from her expansive oeuvre, punctuated by archival footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s (and occasional garden-variety New York City b-roll). Her voice, as resolute as ever, grounds the film even when she is off-screen, narrating her own life story through her impeccable and infinitely quotable texts: Didion writes (and reads) of self-respect, keeping a notebook, moving to New York, coming to resent New York, the Donner party, the Manson murders, love, and crippling loss. In its depiction of Didion’s life, The Center Will Not Hold devotes a disproportionate amount of its screen time to its sad, compassionate, incisive  investigation of the latter.

The celebrated writer’s life, especially in the twenty-first century, has been permeated by tragedy, marked by the abrupt and premature deaths of her husband and daughter. Certainly, as Didion herself acknowledges, this is a particular breed of tragedy that, by definition, everyone will at some point be forced to confront — but, as she points out, they can never fully comprehend it until the moment it arises. Funny to hear such a lauded writer, famous for her ability to find the right words, acknowledge the incapacity of language to reckon with loss. Nonetheless, if language’s limitations do indeed exist, Didion has never let this stop her from trying. The Center Will Not Hold is acutely, passionately forlorn, and Didion’s last two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are drawn upon heavily to set this mood. Even the pervasive sadness, so often forgotten, of Didion’s 20th century work comes to the forefront of the film: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, perhaps her most well-known essay, is discussed in relatively little depth outside of one particular (and particularly troubling) anecdote concerning a five-year-old, white lipstick, and LSD.  

As Didion has enjoyed a recent resurgence of celebration in popular culture in the past few years — I’m thinking here of a certain packing list, extolled for glamorous simplicity, or a particular publicity campaign for French fashion house Céline — the emotional complexity of her writing has been obscured. Glamour, according to John Berger, is “the happiness of being envied.” Didion’s life, as presented in The Center Will Not Hold, is hardly enviable. What is striking about Didion as she’s shown throughout the film is not her glamour, but her steely resolve. The film’s dramaturgical strategy seems to highlight this: loosely divided into three acts, it narrates Didion’s ascendance (from an admittedly privileged background) into literary success, but suddenly pivots away from this course of WASP-y euphoria, veering into a heart-rending exploration of John Gregory and Quintana Roo Dunne’s deaths and the quiet, indefinite discomfort of Didion’s life afterwards. In a portrait of anyone else, such a structure may well play as maudlin — but even through its exacting analysis of tragedy, The Center Will Not Hold is never dismal or pessimistic. The strength of Didion’s presence, tiny and aging and delicate as she may be, obliges her to persevere. In this way, the film is immensely compassionate;  the “love letter to Aunt Joan” that Dunne spoke of when explaining his aim for the project. In a culture where the most prized characteristic of women past reproductive age is invisibility, The Center Will Not Hold speaks to Didion’s unyielding dedication to her craft, even in the face of tragedies somewhat greater than those that typically befall us towards the end of a rich life.