Sunday, July 2, 2023

Film History #3 - Melodrama

According to The Last Detail blog, Thomas Schatz has written that “In the strictest definition of the term, melodrama refers to those narrative forms which combine music (melos) with drama.” But more specifically, Schatz says “melodrama was applied to popular romances that depicted a virtuous individual (usually a woman) or couple (usually lovers) victimized by repressive and inequitable social circumstances, particularly those involving marriage, occupation, and the nuclear family”

In All That Heaven Allows, melodrama contains the “American small town, with its acute class-consciousness, its gossip and judgment by appearances, and its reactionary commitment to fading values and mores”

The film’s subversive quality comes from its social commentary through the actions of the characters as the story unfolds. For American then and now, melodrama was a kind of storytelling that was more easily accessible to everyday audiences. This isn’t the kind of jagged, intense story of Faces or even something older and distant like Night Nurse. It is a story that deals with the conformity of the Eisenhower era and how one woman tries to break free from her social limitations to become a freer individual and lover. And the story is delivered in a “genre in both literature and cinema appealing to mass audience”

The film contains some wonderful references about how the lead character becomes mummified and “walled up alive” like a woman from ancient Egypt. It also features subtle yet scary images of what this looks like in real life when the mom is talking to her daughter while bathed in dark shadows and back blue light where tree branches threatened to keep her trapped in her status as a widow. Then one visual sign of potential revolution and freedom is the red dress she wears to break up the repressiveness of the room.

Early in the film there is also a lot of camera work showing the distance of the characters from each other. In these shots, the viewer wants to get closer, but is kept at a distance, much like the society these people inhabit. This can be seen in the cocktail scene at the house.

Here, even the children are overly formal and distant from their mother, who wears a strking red dress that she act as a radiant magnet of attention and interest but only gets a look and word of contempt from her son.

As mentioned earlier, music is part of the basic defintiion of melodrama, but here it used to punctuate moments in a way that would have a contemporary laugh for the wrong reasons. Or, at least it made me snicker as a kept marking down when these moments happened. They scattered everywhere and tell the viewer when a key moment is happening. This contrast sharply to an earlier film like Night Nurse or even Ninotchka, which seem much quieter by comparison.

Here, music is used as a crash cymbal would be in a rock song to punctuate a moment. In this scene, around the 2:08 mark the music swells to a crescendo and then comes back down.

But even throughout the scene, the music is used to manipulate the audience into feeling the rise and fall of emotions within the characters. The music also helps track the scene’s beats and movements. Some music strictly underscores action, while other pieces of music intensify in pace and rhythm, revealing a worried or stressed mind, or even tension between two people. But what seems most consistent is music swelling during a kissing moment. This, one could argue, epitomes the melodramatic form and can cause giggles for a viewer.

Still, this story offers a lot of wisdom for its time and for now. The references to Thoreau, and the contrast to regular people in the much smaller living space for the clam bake party, reveals and intimacy we don’t get in the much larger house mentioned before.

In this scene, we see how life can be much freer and fulfilling by sharing simple pleasures with friends: a good meal, humor, music, conversation. All this comes without the trappings of class and status and dressing up in sterilized environments.

While All That Heaven Allows provides an American style of melodrama, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant provides a German take on the genre. What we get is unsettling in many ways.

The space is much more confined to a single location inside Kant’s apartment where her servant and her navigate a decadent terrain of what appears to be suppressed desire. Close up shots, still images, and strategic tracking shots create a space that feels very small. Early on, the viewer is only allowed to see the outside windows once. It can feel claustrophobic as Kant maneuvers much of the time on her bed, talking, prepping, and preparing the “many faces that you meet” as T.S. Eliot wrote years earlier.

Throughout all of this is the ghostly image of Marlene, her servant, who does her bidding without saying a word. She types, gets tea, answers the door, and performs all the tasks of a person without personal agency. She also is an active witness and audience to all of Kant’s stories, seductions, and strange behavior. Like a ghost with pale skin, Marlene seems to fill the space with her haunting eyes.

There are times when a shot will start with Kant and then the focus will slowly shift to reveal Marlene observing and taking in the whole show, like this haunting part at 28:16 in the film.

The shot passes zooms in to leave behind the mannequin on the far right and then Kant to reveal Marlene just watching with her eyes that look like they are being seen from behind a mask of a face she is wearing. It’s a disturbing image.

Later, when a young woman comes to call and Kant looks to seduce her, we are treated to another dominant theme from a different camera angle: the Bacchus painting that takes up a whole wall.

This image illustrates the tension between the pursuer and the pursued and the reward that is sensual pleasure as illustrated in the mural on the wall.

Another image in the film that suggests titillation and desire is when the young woman’s hands form a gesture up by her chest as if she could pull apart her top at any moment. She holds that position for a time, drawing the viewer in as well as Kant. This shot also uses a mirror for its effects, something Fassbender does a lot just like Sirk.

Throughout the scene, both women play a game of cat and mouse in such a small space. The viewer can feel the tension rise, while the typewriter keys in the background provide the only soundtrack. This is not the same kind of music manipulation in Heaven but it still succeeds in creating a scene filled with psychological gesture whether someone is leaning on the hyper-sexualized mural or laying down slowly in the bed, all while the camera carefully eavesdrops on both women and Marlene while she types.

Something else of note, Fassbender allows shots to sit in one place for a time to create a feeling on the viewer. As the young model to be tells her story on the bed, Kant comes up from behind, alternating between caring for and hunting her prey.


As the film progresses, the tables turn on Kant, as the young woman was only using her. Kant breaks down and her emotions take over.

Finally, the young woman leaves but not without getting spat on by Kant.

Eventually, it appears Kant is on her way to recovering, and even goes so far to reach out to Marlene, to learn more about her, and one might say, to set her free. And with that, Marlene goes, leaving behind Kant in a now sparsely furnished apartment, raw and unadorned just like its owner.

While these two films are very different, and it would be easy to say that this film is much different than what has come before in the class – even Faces – the key melodramatic ingredient it pulls on is emotion. This comes from longing, conflict, and the desire to get something that can be unattainable. Heaven appears to end on a happy note, but Kant ends leaving the audience empty.

But using melodrama storytelling techniques allows the audience in and that allows filmmakers freedom comment on society, cultural changes, personal relationships, and whole host of other subjects. I would argue Fassbender’s film is more difficult to watch because it is unrelenting in its slow, steady camera work and destructive characters, but it still brings the pain of a woman all alone, feeling her age as time goes by.

As an end note, it’s also film that shows how these effects can take place in much more rugged way than the standard Hollywood system movie approach.


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