“Any life-story that deals with a relationship or whatever is a melodrama, and for this reason I think melodrama films are correct.” – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977 Interview with Cineaste
“To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, because Bergman’s themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message” – Roger Ebert, Great Movies: Written on the Wind, rogerebert.com
“If you enjoy L’Eternel Retour you may enjoy also King Kong, but not Black Narcissus. If you enjoy Black Narcissus you cannot enjoy L’Eternel Retour (if you think you enjoyed both, you are wrong)” – Lindsay Anderson, Sequence Magazine
Has any genre in cinema history been so maligned as the melodrama? Its focus on emotion, extravagantly unreal plots and current relegation to the realm of day-time soap operas have caused it to be a style that is rarely given a chance to impress. Yet some of the most renowned directors in history have made their masterworks in it; Powell & Pressburger, Sirk, Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Almodóvar to name a handful.
The easy first reaction to a tearful close-up with swelling romantic music or a seemingly random twist-of-fate that sends the protagonists towards their doom is one of scorn and derision. “Ha!” laughs the savvy modern viewer, “what ridiculousness, emotions don’t manifest themselves like that in reality.” The same criticism is often levelled against the melodrama’s sister genre, the musical which does little but reveal the critic’s ignorance of that genre’s purpose. “But I just don’t like those kinds of films,” is the natural response, which is fine, but the fact remains that no other genre has represented women with such psychological depth as has the melodrama. To deride it is to deride half of humanity.
At this point it is necessary to state explicitly that this is not a call to do away with male-oriented genres in favour of melodrama, instead it is a defence of a genre at the expense of nothing.
The Empowered Woman
Traditional male genres like the western or the gangster film have typically relegated women to peripheral roles, someone to worry about or mourn for the male protagonist, while the noir had women acting as “vamps,” leading the otherwise upstanding male character to his doom through seduction and self-interest. Women existed, filmmakers at the time were aware of this, but what direct impact they had on the big important questions, those of war, country-building and law-making/enforcing, well who knew?
So when a film like All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) comes along, telling the story of a widow whose feelings for her lower-class gardener are in direct conflict with her upper-middle-class neighbours’ opinions of propriety, who could possibly take it seriously when compared with action-filled aggrandizements of war featuring real buff men like John Wayne? Who could take the small domestic issues of a woman chained to her home seriously when the fate of the world was at stake?
Then, as is always the case, the ‘60s happened, and suddenly the oppressed housewife no longer spoke to the women of the world. However, apart from the odd exception that attempted to address gender issues in a quickly changing environment, Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968) and Network (Sidney Lumet, 1975) being decent examples, the male-oriented cinema continued to reign, with the women characters now just morally dubious rather than things to be morally corrupted.
With a mindset that could only be considered adolescent some bright-sparks thought “hey, why not make action movies only, wait, this is good, instead of men, right, you with me? the heroes will be women!” and so films like Aliens (James Cameron, 1986) and Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) that try to empower women by turning them into male action-heroes were churned out en masse, allowing those who were tired of hearing “but where are the strong women of cinema?” levelled at them to point and go “there, look, she’s killing a thousand Chinamen with sword, how much stronger can you get?” (For the record, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) is a far more subtle and fascinating exploration of gender than the generic action sequel that followed it, and I will write another time about the horror genre’s link to melodrama).
So it remains today that a film that shows a woman kicking the heads off a roomful of baddies in fits of masculine rage is considered to be “empowering women” in cinema, the films that show genuine women with genuine problems tending to be the lot of a handful of directors.
Melodrama; what does that even mean?
Like all genres, melodrama is loosely defined. The use of emotional music and over-the-top plotting are the basic requirements, but when utilised well by the best directors it is quite simply the most effective and believable way of expressing desire and characters, both male and female, but it also has a grand potential for metaphor that is unrivalled in other genres.
The melodrama has its own peculiar style of acting. In contrast with method acting, where the actor is made to feel his or her character’s emotion and then to bury it for the purpose of “realism” (method acting clearly designed to express more “male” characters, emotionally repressed), the melodramatic style puts everything on the surface so that there is no ambiguity; what the characters feel is made very obvious to the viewer. To say there is only one kind of acting is to limit your experience as a viewer of cinema.
In cinema the melodrama can potentially express so much more when using these basic tools of emotion and plot with a pinch of creativity. Films like Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947), Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959), The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1979) and All About My Mother (Almodóvar, 1999) are four of the best films to utilise the melodramatic style
When recounting the plot of All About My Mother it appears to be a piece of exploitation. With characters like Agrado’s transsexual, a transvestite father of two and a pregnant nun with AIDS it does seem to invite scorn, but the film’s brilliance lies in the simple reality of Cecilia Roth’s grieving mother, whose pain anyone can understand, and the fact that she treats all of these outlandish characters as real human beings, has honest relationships with them and makes them sympathetic. These characters are naturally melodramatic, excessive, so they exist in the realm of melodrama. The urge to laugh at them exists, and in a serious drama that would be the prevailing feeling, but melodrama takes the obvious absurdity of their beings and twists it around, so by the time Agrado is on stage recounting her life story we are all laughing with her.
No other form could so beautifully capture the complex issues of our changing understanding of gender. Only in the world of melodrama can an AIDS-suffering transvestite impregnate a nun and instead of rolling our eyes we feel the honest tragedy of the nun’s mother not being able to accept the child in her home for fear of catching AIDS. These are real issues, and the film is an absolutely essential piece of modern cinema in that it tells the stories of a marginalised people in a way that is not meant to be shocking but compassionate.
In many ways All About My Mother is comparable with Sirk’s Imitation of Life in that Almodóvar’s film attempts to bridge the gap between genders, whereas Sirk’s bridges the gap between races. Cecilia Roth’s role is here played by Lana Turner, the single mother with whom the audience empathises and the black woman – also a single mother – whom she takes in as a maid and eventually becomes friends with. The maid’s daughter Sarah Jane is the stand-in for Almodóvar’s Lola, in that she is light-skinned enough to pass as white and does so. She is ashamed of her black mother with a fervour that to modern audiences may seem excessive but powerfully expresses the inner shame forced on a person for being black in the US in 1950s.
If a viewer approaches the film thinking “why does this character feel so strongly?” rather than “that character feels too strongly so I’m not going to take it seriously” then they will set themselves up to be able to see what melodrama has to offer. Imitation of Life happens to be a masterwork and is still incredibly affecting today, as Sarah Jane is torn between the hard-working mother who has little but started with less, and the society that reacts with horror and hatred when they learn of her parentage.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder has described Sirk’s cinema as the only one in which women were shown to think, by which he means they were the only films in which women decided their own fates rather than having them decided for them. He himself interpreted this by variously showing women as being complicit in their own oppression, an opinion every bit as controversial today as ever it was, if not necessarily untrue. In The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) Hans beats his wife Irmgard in front of their young daughter, but when Irmgard phones her lawyer demanding a divorce Hans suffers a heart-attack and is bed-ridden and unable to work. Of her own will Irmgard returns to her abusive partner’s side, clearly moved by the helplessness that drives Hans to depression. When Hans suffers his heart-attack Irmgard is free but she returns to his side, her presence only prolongs his suffering and draws out the long process of his self-destruction. When Hans dies Irmgard is free again but now it is a despairing freedom where before it was purely liberating.
The worth of melodrama then is in telling the stories of the oppressed in society, those whose oppression is perpetrated by society rather than by the individual, which is the main struggle of most male-oriented dramas; the individual against the individual or the individual against the self. A film like Die Hard (1988) uses its villain as a means for the hero to transcend himself, to go beyond his human form and establish order. For the melodrama films mentioned above the drama of the characters comes in their attempts to simply fulfil themselves, to be able to exist in their real form, not as outcasts but as full human beings.
Besides the literal facts of a melodrama’s plot the form has one of the greatest capacities of any genre for metaphor. Two of Fassbinder’s greatest protagonists Maria in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Franz in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1982) are both often read as metaphors for Germany in the post-war and pre-Nazi era respectively. Maria’s obvious love for her soldier husband, a representative of the brave and gallant Aryan warrior of the Nazis’ propaganda, an ideal the Germans are purposed to adore, is seen portrayed as hollow when Maria takes up with Bill a black American soldier. Maria’s rise in the business world directly corresponds with Germany’s economic boom, but she is characterised as a soulless woman who eventually destroys herself, literally exploding from inconsiderateness. Franz Biberkopf is an ex-pimp released from jail into a depressed and tense Berlin where his attempts to go straight are foiled by the floundering economy where a man cannot do an honest day’s work with any sense of self-fulfilment or pride. Led into a heist by the mysterious Reinhold he is thrown from a car and ends up losing his arm, unable to work like The Merchant of Four Seasons’ Hans. He, like Germany, is unable to work when it is maimed and so must return to its criminal ways, an inevitable return to self-preservation at the expense of everyone around them.
This is metaphor on an international level but melodrama is also one of the best ways of expressing the goings on of the mind, as is the case in Black Narcissus. A convent in the Himalayas is the setting of the story of Deborah Kerr’s nun and the sisters’ attempt to establish a presence in this part of the world. It is clearly as repressed and isolated a setting as could possibly be imagined but it is the film that has been described as one of the most erotic films of all time for the desire that Deborah Kerr joined the convent to repress. Her memories of her time with her lover in Ireland and his taking off to America without her are shown as the reasons for her joining the convent, but through Mr Dean’s ever-increasingly bared skin and the eventual eruption of Sister Clodagh in a bizarre breaking out in red dress and lipstick and murderous intent, the convent becomes a representation of her mind, and the convent’s failure to integrate itself with the community beyond any superficial level in turn shows that she herself does not belong here.