Tag Archives: melodrama

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 113 – Mildred Pierce

We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.

We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.

We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.

Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?

And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

La Diosa arrodillada/ The Kneeling Goddess (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1947)

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From the very beginning of La Diosa arrodillada, the viewer is plunged into a heightened world of dreams and desires, a world of feeling which the characters express through diaries, letters. They speak to each other in a heightened tone, with poetic language  and presented to the viewer through symbolic use of imagery. The films is, to borrow J. Hoberman’s words, ‘part film noir, part grand opera’.

La Diosa arrodillada opens with Raquel (María Félix) eagerly awaiting her lover Antonio (Arturo de Córdova) at the airport. She smiles with pleasure at his arrival, and before he sees her, thus conveying to us that her feelings for him are real. In the first few lines of dialogue, we know they’ve done this before, that their time together is fleeting and precious, snatched from other commitments and obligations. There’s then a dissolve. We first see a carafe of wine, smoke curling up the frame. We hear her voice, ‘to think I never ask you anything. I’ve never wanted to ask you anything’. The camera pulls back. ‘That’s the proof of our love’, he responds, ‘We must never interrogate the past if we value our love’.

‘But it’s so difficult to be strong when alone’, she says, ‘and we see so little of each other. Let’s never abandon each other. It would be like death.’

‘If so, let’s close our eyes and live that dream’.

Cut to an extraordinary close-up of Félix, as if in orgasm, saying: ‘I’ll keep my eyes closed to prevent my soul from escaping this dream. That is my promise Antonio’.

From the beginning we’re plunged into a world of feeling, dreams, a place where life is to be lived in the intense now without regard to the past and bracketed away from the future and from the society that intrudes on this world of feeling and may shatter it . But these wishes won’t come true; the promises won’t be kept. The world will intrude. They try to do what they think is right but are propelled by a force of desire they can’t control; he especially as despite the film’s title, this is not the story of a kneeling Goddess but of a fallen man.

 

Desire

What drives the narrative engine of The Kneeling Goddess, the motor of all noir, is desire. In this case, Antonio’s for Raquel. The film tells us this most directly. When he returns home to his office and his wife, Antonio looks outside, to a sign urging lovers to ‘Use Desire, the Perfume of Lovers’. The film doesn’t want us to miss this so the score urgently and loudly underlines its significance.

‘What do you understand by desire,’ Antonio asks his butler? ‘what one longs for, what one wants..’. ‘Exactly. But it’s more than that. It’s a force that obliges you. That propels you to obtain what you want, and to keep it if you’ve already obtained it. Isn’t that right?’

‘Yes’

‘But that force can grow, take shape, take on a life of its own, become stronger than you, and could end up destroying you. And what’s worse destroy all those closest to you.’

Antonio looks of a picture of his wife, who’s been in ill in a sanatorium in Cincinnati, probably the reason he hooked up with Racquel in the first place. It’s at that moment that Antonio decides to stop seeing Raquel. Raquel, however,  has beat him to it, leaving a letter for him, saying she’s got a past, one she doesn’t want to divulge to him, and in spite of her promises, can’t continue seeing him. He never gets that letter because, reminded of how much he loves his wife and how much his wife needs him,  he ends up not going to Guadalajara to see her and thus does not receive her brush-off.

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But fate won’t let them be. When he returns home, his wife has been completing work on the garden. They’ve put a fountain. And she decides that the only thing missing, is a statue, something like the Venus de Milo. He goes to a gallery and finds the statue he’s looking for, a statue clearly modelled on Raquel, who he finds there, half-dressed after having posed for the sculptorp. It’s called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’, she informs him, ‘but it’s really just a woman on her knees, the way men like to see them be.’

In the clip below, you can see, how Gavaldón shows us the effect of that statue, of Raquel, on Antonio and his marriage. He becomes transfixed. His wife watches the statue take hold of him. There’s thunder, lightning, rain. Like Sirk, Gavaldón is not afraid to externalise feeling. But unlike Sirk, Gavaldón does not ironise, distance, or make strange. The obsession depicted comes from the heart and is meant to be understood as such. When he returns to his study, we hear him tell himself in voice-over:’ there’s nothing worse than fooling yourself. All my struggle has been for nought. I understand it’s stronger than I’. Reason and will recede, and he succumbs to desire and the unconscious.

 

Thus begins Antonio’s decline. Once he was a happily married man, a rich industrialist with his own chemical company. Soon he’ll be chasing through the tropics following a cabaret singer selling more than songs in cheap dives. His wife is surrounded by friends, chandeliers, formal paintings of herself, she plays classical music. Raquel in contrast is shown naked in marble, showing off her body in Panama’s Paradise singing popular song and embracing unknown sailors. The film is not afraid of over-emphasis and the contrasting ways in which each woman in Antonio’s life is symbolised is consistently and continually underlined.

Time is a persistent theme in the film. At the beginning, Raquel wants to deny the past and the future and live in a continual present. They have little time. Later on, Antonio’s wife dies. In an extraordinary scene, Gavaldón shows us the married couple, the wedding cake celebrating their anniversary in the foreground, the statue that threatens the marriage behind them in the background. In seconds, Antonio will put poison in a drink. His wife will see him put that poison in one of two drinks. Is the poison for her or for himself? We don’t know but in the  next shot an obit shows us the wife’s already a goner.

Raquel believes he may have done it out of love for her. This rather thrills her. It might be what made him go to Panama, to get drunk watching her sing of the treachery and uselessness of love and marriage and allowing herself, like Gilda, to be felt up by the men in the audience. When she asks him why he’s followed her to Panama, he, drunk on the floor with alcohol, and drunk in the head with desire for her, cups her breasts and then moves his hand up her throat and tries to strangle her. Time as feeling in the film stands still; time as narrative gallops along at an insatiable pace.

The question of time is uttered constantly in stylised language and shown to us through a symbol that encapsulates so many of the film’s themes. A lighter (see below), that is also a watch, and that has a secret compartment which can carry poison. Thus, a desire that sparks, that will burn, with an intensity that can only ever be delimited before it is extinguished, and that carries a poison through which one can kill oneself and possibly others. All encased in time. It’s brilliant.

 

Like in a musical, the songs in the Panama Paradise sequence are used to comment on the story. The first part of the number, starts with Raquel partner’s singing to us: ‘I just screwed up, I got married, and fell into the woman’s trap’. She in turn begins her song by saying how women have to act submissive and be smart to catch a man. ‘I confess I don’t know what love is’ ‘You have a heart of crystal,’ sings her partner.

Then the tone changes and Raquel goes onto perform her solo which begins in the talk-singing style later made famous by Rex Harrison and which begins the clip above. ‘I’ve known love. It’s very beautiful. Burt for me it was fleeting and traitorous. It made dishonest what was once glorious. My law is pleasure…for money,’ and then she begins the song proper. Love was her cross and her religion but love’s revenge was marriage, after which their love became only pretend, a farce they’re now condemned to keep on repeating.

The last bit of the number, a duet once more, sings of the glories of not getting married and that to be happy one must never listen to one’s heart and forget about love. Something that Antonio, in the audience, and having drunk his way to unconsciousness due to his feelings for her, is beginning to learn. But as the song ends, a coochie dancer appears, shakes her bum, and lets the audience in the scene and the audience watching the film know love’s got little to do with anything:  that it’s all about the sex.

 

David Melville notes the comparison to Von Sternberg in this sequence: ‘This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy’.

Raquel only begins to be sure of his love once she suspects he may have killed for her. This paves the way for  getting  married and the return to Mexico,. As you can see in the fantastic sequence above, the film turns quasi-Gothic, like a combination of Rebecca and Suspicion. She wears black, wonders around the house at night, finds his bedroom locked to her. She sees that the portrait of Antonio’s dead wife dominates the living room, that her reminder is everywhere in the house. He in turn spies her  contemplating his dead wife’s painting, which he then becomes obsessed with. This is dark, murky, territory, where the darker feelings that edge and constantly pull on desire — guilt, disgust, fear, jealousy — are symbolically visualised.

The picture of Raquel that drives Antonio so wild with desire, The Kneeling Goddess, is meant to be of Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. And María Félix is often adorned with feathers, beautiful, but a bird of prey (see examples above).

 

Raquel is also often associated with animals. The Giraffe print in the Schiaparelli-esque dress on the left, the mermaid or siren look in the picture on the second from the left, the spider web dress in the second from the right, and of course in fur on the right.

As Moviediva argues, ‘La diosa tackles one of Gavaldon’s recurring themes, death, in this case the death of a man’s spirit, as he is corrupted by his love for a femme fatale.  He loves the use of mirrors, used to demonstrate duality, and here, also the decay of the hero’s morality.  Because there was no Production Code in Mexico, this film is surprisingly sexy for a 1940s film’. Indeed as you can see in the images above, whereas the wife was always associated with high culture, refinement and respectability, Raquel is constantly associated with sex, a Circe who will drive men to ridicule and ruin. As J. Hoberman writes,  The Kneeling Goddess  ‘is the most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes …(and María Félix is) a femme fatale to rival any from 1940s Hollywood, Félix embodies a moral ambiguity beyond good and evil.’

Paco Ignacio Taibo has written that when the film came out in Mexico it was denounced as an ‘insult to the morality of the country’, an attack on Christian morality, There were demonstrations. Taibo is particularly harsh on the film’s wardrobe, which as you can see from my comments above, I heartily disagree with; and also with the film’s dialogue: ‘I’ve had to fight very hard to win your heart’; ‘I’ve tried to fight a fire with a sea of dynamite’; ‘You either give yourself to me or destroy me’.

I see the dialogue as one of the film’s strengths. It is like opera, it is meant to ‘sing’ a realm of feeling. External realism has very little place in film’s of this type. Like in many film noirs, melodramatic passion is what’s on visual display; how desire can drive a man to his doom, desire for whom, and how. As we can see in the final sequence, where Raquel runs to the jail to inform her husband that he’s been declared innocent, that the night is gone forever, all whilst images show her and then him and then them, imprisoned by their past, their desires, their actions: the dream they wanted to hold onto by closing their eyes turned into a nightmare, his fears regarding his desires, being proved all too true. And then the film, rather than ending on him ends on her, in the mansion that is now hers, looking at the statue that she posed for, and pondering that power of that which it represents. What is the significance of her look as the camera follows her gaze and tracks into a closer look at the stature? It’s a great sequence in a truly great movie (see below)

José Arroyo

 

Pequeñeces (Juan de Orduña, Spain, 1950)

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Pequeñeces/ Trifles is one of the super-productions of Cifesa, arguably the most important studio in Spain during the Franco era, and certainly the one that best toed the party line and reflected its ideology. It’s got a sparkly star cast — Aurora Bautista, Jorge Mistral, an early but important appearance by Sara Montiel — and high production values. The director is Juan de Orduña, one of the era’s better and more successful ones.

It’s a period piece set in the era when Amadeo de Saboya temporarily took over the throne in 1870-1873 from Queen Isabella II, after she was forced to abdicate and before her son Alfonso XII took over the throne. The narrative revolves around the rich and powerful Curra (Aurora Bautista), the Countess of Albornoz and how her intrigues at court and in her love life lead her to neglect her child. She’s wilful, selfish, accustomed to getting her own way; proud and certain that her social position means that she can get around all the laws of men. Which she manages to do for quite a while, carrying on an affair with the handsome and trecherous Marquess de Sabadell (Jorge Mistral) right under her husband’s nose.

Everyone in society knows except the husband — played to great comic effect by Juan Vázquez — who only seems to be interested in his food. They also know that Sabadell is cheating on Curra with Monique, a French courtesan played by Sara Montiel. Sabadell has been selling state papers that don’t belong to him and pays for it with his life, rhyming with the death of Curra’s previous lover and secretary at the beginning of the film. It’s a death too much.

As a result of Sabadell’s murder, their affair becomes public knowledge and Curra is socially shunned. Worse, her son hearing the names she’s being called tries to defend her, even though he chose to leave home and go to a religious school because he caught his mother in flagrante with her lover, and in doing so drowns both himself and Sabadell’s son. But no matter, the boy speaks to the mother from heaven and lets her know his death is an opportunity for her to redeem herself and become the good person he’s always known she is. That religiosity — I’m not sure if it’s a false one since the film is an adaptation of a book written by a Jesuit — is the alibi for all the racy elements in the film. It’s a bit C.B. De Mille-ish. You can show all the sexyness and excitement so long as you moralise about how wrong it all is. Wish it were more exciting here. It would make it easier to bear all the sermonising priests and angelic children.

José Luis Tellez in his excellent piece on the film in Antología Crítica del Cine Español has called Pequeñeces an ‘unquestionable masterpiece and an exemplary melodrama’. I don’t see it. I hate this movie. I hate the hypocritical religiosity; the sentimentality over children, the choppyness of a narrative which has to rely on voice-over, letters, sermons, and even a voice from beyond the grave; and most of all I hate Aurora Bautista’s performance. She’s the Greer Garson of Spanish cinema in this period, lady-like, heroic, important, without an ounce of humour about herself, not the least sexy, and yet theatrically ‘expert’, which means she hits all the right notes whilst never being believable. Everything she does grates.

It was one of the most expensive films of the period, a super-production costing four million pesetas, forty prints were struck so that it could premiere simultaneously across Spain, and it was a hit at the box office, running continuously in one Madrid theatre for 107 days. The message is that what one might see as mere trifles might have a great effect on society and on one’s children. Yawn.

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For me, if you’re not an afficionado of Franquist Spanish cinema there are only three reasons to see the film:

  1. It does have interesting imagery (see an example above, when the priests at the school are searching for the boys).
  2. There’s an early appearance from a young zaftig young girl in the process of becoming Sara Montiel (see her entrance in the film in the first clip below)
  3. There’s also the only representation of a gay man I know of in this period of Franquist cinema, clearly coded as such. I apologise for not knowing the actor’s name (and perhaps one you can help with this) but he’s Jacobo’s uncle Francisco, and you can see Jorge Mistral and he in the second clip posted below

 

José Arroyo

 

 

Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967)

 

‘Alain Delon ne parle jamais si bien que quand il se tait’/ ‘Alain Delon never speaks so well as when he’s silent’, François Mauriac, Le Figaro littéraire.1

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Spanish poster outside the Cine Doré

Le Samouraī is all slate-grey sadness edged by Courrèges-like white modernist elements and encased in lazy jazz. Plus Alain Delon in his prime: Gorgeous. I had the luck to see it at the Cine Doré, the cinema where Benigno (Javier Camará) goes to see the silent ‘The Shrinking Man’ in Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and which acts as a metaphor for a loving violation. It’s worth remarking that the Spanish title of Le Samouraï, El silencio de un hombre, which translates literally as ‘A Man’s Silence,’ here markets noir, whereas a woman’s silence, like the women in Talk to Her, women whom circumstance prevent their speaking their truth, would instantly connote melodrama. The connections between noir and melodrama interest me and Le Samourai, like Talk to Her, is mired in muteness.

Delon’s Jeff Costello appears to us as languid loneliness enveloped in puffs of smoke from the first shot and he remains – not autistic, not even impassive – rather recessive, detached throughout. Is it that he can’t speak his ills or that he simply doesn’t know them? No matter, Melville and the film do, and every frame and camera move speaks them. The world of Le Samourai is a dirty one for a professional hit-man who claims some honour. Delon’s Costello is focussed on doing but disconnected from being, yet wanting. He’s desired but unable to reciprocate such longings: desire would imply longing, wanting and indicate a rooted and fleshly existence that Costello seems detached from. It’s a glorious film. Lovely print too. My main visual memory is an image of Delon as Costello, filmed outside his car window, rendered out of focus by fog and rain. The most memorable scene is the last one, where his professionalism battles his honour and Being succumbs to Nothingness.

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Italian poster

José Arroyo

  1. Cited in Bernard Violet, Les mystères Delon, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, p. 188. Translation my own.

 

 

SPL2: A TIME OF CONSEQUENCES/ aka Kill Zone 2 (Chang Pou-soi, Hong Kong/China, 2015)

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An interesting instance of popular Global Cinema that does not primarily address a Western audience, SPL2: A Time of Consequences is a very loose sequel to Yi Wai-shun’s drama about police corruption, SPL or Kill Zone (2005). The film jumps from Hong Kong to Thailand through the China Seas and unfolds in four languages. I was thrilled to see that it’s had a mainstream if limited release through Cineworld — it’s been a smash hit in Asia — and I rushed to see it.

 

 

Watching SPL2: A Time of Consequences reminded me of Carlos Monsiváis comment that melodrama is easy and addictive. It is easy if, like here, you have a young child who will die unless she has an organ donor and other children who are being senselessly kidnapped and brutally killed for their organs: I dare you not to feel. It is addictive, in spite of the crude way they are fictionalised and narrated, because these films seem to speak about and to a more recognisable world that more sophisticated films often eschew. This is a world where friendship, family, love and other bonds forged through shared struggle are the only protection against the nightmarish brutality and injustice, sometimes random, that pervade everywhere and persist past the film’s conclusion. It’s crude but most effective.

 

The plot reminded me of Arthur Laurents comment that plots were easy because all he had to do was come up with a set of characters, throw them into conflict and then realign the ways they reconnected through their struggle into a conclusion. Let me say just say here that there are two brothers: one who’s built his fortune on illegally harvesting organs (Louis Koo); the other, the only one who can match his brother’s blood-type; a prison guard in Thailand with a daughter needing a transplant (Tony Jaa); a Hong Kong cop with a heroin habit (Wu Jing) who ends up in a Thai prison and is the exact match for the daughter: the uncle of the Hong Kong cop (Simon Yam)and a martial arts wiz of a prison warden (Max Zhang). Throw it in the air, put it back together, and you’ve got a serviceable plot.

 

But plot is the least important part of these films. The reason why they continue to enchant is the action. Here both Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are superb at demonstrating their martial arts in some sublime action sequences where we get to see their art in full flower: Li Ching-chi, who directed the action set-pieces, has the wit to allow us to see their bodies extended in motion to complete an action before cutting on to something else, thus allowing us to appreciate their grace and skill. The stars are very charismatic with and without movement, which is a plus. There’s a slight suggestion of homophobia in the way the villains are coded as gay (a tender fingering of a tie between biggest baddie and second biggest baddie) but it’s brief. The film won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Action Choreography, and one can understand why. I liked it.

 

José Arroyo