In my review of Asako I & II that appears in this week’s Reader, I argue that the melodrama remains a genre with much to teach us. The heightened emotions we associate with melodramas speak to the feelings we all experience during moments of crisis and epiphany, while the blatant narrative contrivances of the genre can make us more cognizant of the arbitrary forces that shape our lives. The melodramatic tradition goes back hundreds of years, having a long legacy on stage before the movies began; the early cinema teems with melodramas, many of them adapted from popular stage plays.
A shortsighted critical tendency is to disparage vestiges of the stage melodrama in film, dismissing them as creaky or nonnaturalistic rather than reckoning with the implications they have on our lives. Yet in the right hands, melodramas can be highly resonant, not only in their emotional content but in the subtext that filmmakers bring to them. The five Reader capsules reprinted below consider three straight-up classics of the genre and two postmodern variations on the melodrama. The latter employ sophisticated formal techniques to render strange the nonnaturalistic elements of the melodrama and bring them crashing into the contemporary world. More than just two of the finest films of the last 50 years, they illuminate qualities of the genre that had been there from the beginning and which can be found, in exquisite form, in the three other examples spotlighted here.
Way Down East D.W. Griffith’s most popular film after The Birth of a Nation was based on a florid Victorian stage melodrama about a seduced and abandoned orphan girl who seeks refuge with a farm family. Through his star, Lillian Gish, Griffith gives the story an emotional power that lifts this 1920 silent feature to the level of a folktale; it becomes something simple, strong, and timeless. —Dave Kehr
History Is Made at Night Frank Borzage, the most radiant romantic sensibility of the American cinema, is represented here by one of his warmest, most perfect works (1937). Maître d’ Charles Boyer meets unhappy American Jean Arthur; he takes her for a late-night tango in a Paris bistro and the sign that they have fallen in love comes when she kicks off her shoes—she trusts him enough to dance barefooted. But Arthur has a husband, a sadistic shipping magnate (Colin Clive) who forces the lovers to separate; when they meet again, it’s aboard an ocean liner, steaming on a collision course with an iceberg. Borzage uses every resource of mise-en-scène—lighting, camera movement, depth of focus, and cutting—to create a separate enchanted environment for his characters. It is melodrama, certainly, but melodrama played with so much conviction and exquisite sensitivity that all the viewer’s defenses are destroyed. —Dave Kehr
Magnificent Obsession Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman star in Douglas Sirk’s 1954 version of the Lloyd C. Douglas novel about a playboy who becomes a doctor in order to restore the eyesight of a woman he’s carelessly blinded. Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne starred in the John M. Stahl original in 1935, and the difference between the two versions is the difference between a sincerely melodramatic sensibility (Stahl) and a coolly formal approach to otherwise unwieldy projects (Sirk).—Don Druker
Fox and His Friends This 1975 melodrama by Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of his better middle-period films. A fairgrounds worker (Fassbinder) who wins a small fortune in a state lottery is exploited and eventually destroyed by his effete bourgeois lover (Karlheinz Böhm) and the lover’s stuck-up friends. Very sharp about class and milieu, the film is limited only by Fassbinder’s characteristic enjoyment of the hero-victim’s pain. At one point the camera is even stationed on a floor a moment before the hapless hero slips and falls, in sadistic anticipation of his mishap. As with much of Fassbinder’s work, his cruelty complicates rather than negates his mordant, on-target social analysis. With Peter Chatel, Harry Baer, Ulla Jacobsson, and Kurt Raab. In German with subtitles. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Mélo Alain Resnais’ incomparable masterpiece (1986) is bound to baffle spectators who insist on regarding him as an intellectual rather than an emotional director, simply because he shares the conviction of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson that form is the surest route to feelings. In his 11th feature, he adapts a 1929 boulevard melodrama by a forgotten playwright named Henri Bernstein, and holds so close to this “dated” and seemingly unremarkable play that theatrical space and decor—including the absence of a fourth wall—are rigorously respected. Using the same talented quartet that appeared in his previous two films—André Dussollier (Le beau mariage) as a gifted concert violinist; Pierre Arditi as his suburban friend, Sabine Azéma as the latter’s wife, who falls in love with the violinist; and Fanny Ardant (in a smaller role) as her cousin—Resnais invests the original meaning of “melodrama” (drama with music) with exceptional beauty and power, cutting and moving his camera with impeccable dramatic logic to give their performances maximum voltage. His concentrated treatment of the 20s, while never less than modern, retrieves that era in all its mysterious density. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v