Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama is a sixty-two film series now running at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York through January 7. “Sam Fuller famously defined cinema as ‘emotion,’ and just about every variety of it may be found in this mammoth international survey of movie melodrama,” writes J. Hoberman in a note on the series for the New York Review of Books, where he tacks on “a special plug for the Bengali filmmaker’s Ritwik Ghatak’s majestic weepie The Cloud-Capped Star .”
Hoberman has more in the New York Times, specifically about Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), “as exquisite an account of romantic obsession as Hollywood ever produced, dramatizing a passion as outsize as it is understated.” The film “was adapted by Howard Koch from an epistolary novella by Stefan Zweig,” a “first-person account of a woman’s heart-wrenching masochistic love for a famous novelist who unknowingly fathers her child. . . . The impetus for the movie came from its star, Joan Fontaine. Then about thirty, Ms. Fontaine enjoys an onscreen transformation as her character, Lisa, evolves from a fifteen-year-old mouseburger to a sophisticated matron, without losing her wistful naïveté. Stefan, the carefree womanizer who is the object of her adoration, is played by the French actor Louis Jourdan in one of his earliest Hollywood movies. He’s glibly self-absorbed; she’s enraptured, possessed by a drive beyond her control.”
Letter from an Unknown Woman is “at once opulent and austere, underrated in its time, but belatedly recognized as one of the glories of the so-called woman’s melodrama,” writes Molly Haskell for Film Comment. “In the seventies and eighties, critics and feminists took another look at those thirties and forties ‘weepers’ that enshrined women’s love and sacrifice, hitherto objects of critical condescension, and saw a fascinating counterpart to male-dominated genres and action films. In the woman’s film, the heroine, far from being merely the pliant object of male desire, or the conventional ‘little woman,’ was maestra and generalissima in the arena of love, someone who risked opprobrium and defined a path for herself outside the traditional bounds of society.”
“In an era typically celebrated for its depictions of gangsters, chorines, and naughty shopgirls, the pre-Code melodrama is often (understandably) lost in the jazzy shuffle,” writes Caroline Golum. “But the liberty afforded filmmakers during this brief and wonderful time lends itself so perfectly to outsized stories of human tragedy that one would be remiss in writing off films like Only Yesterday  as another cranked-out studio weepy. After this film, director John M. Stahl would add another two famous melodramas to his eventually extensive filmography: the first iterations of Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession, later recast in gold by Douglas Sirk. It is not a leap to consider him a Zeus in the pantheon of directors—like Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and even William Wyler—who would later come to define the genre.”
“Leave it to Vincente Minnelli to make a film about window dressing,” writes Ryan Kane, also at Screen Slate. The Cobweb (1955) “may seem like nothing more than a studio oddity at first glance. After all, it’s a two hour long psychodrama revolving around a set of drapes. Don’t be deceived though—there are plenty of creative flourishes etched between the seams, even if its thick fabric suggests otherwise.”
Emotion Pictures is divided into four sections and, while we’ll be tracking coverage for as long as the series runs, here’s an overview of the program with the briefest of notes on where to read more about each film.
The Goddess (1934), directed by Wu Yonggang. “A few dedicated film fans learned a little about [Ruan Lingyu] through Stanley Kwan's 1992 film Actress (or Center Stage), starring Maggie Cheung as Ruan and featuring a few vintage clips of Ruan’s movies,” notes Jeffrey M. Anderson. “The Goddess tells the story of a young mother who earns money for her child as a prostitute. One night while hiding from the cops, she has the misfortune to duck into the wrong room. It’s occupied by a lowlife gangster type, who decides to make her his property. . . . Ruan’s performance is so heartrendingly pure that the film is almost unbearable to watch.”
Orphans of the Storm (1921), D. W. Griffth. “Lillian Gish said this film was heavily influenced by Thomas Carlyle, as well as Charles Dickens, Griffith’s favorite novelist,” notes Farran Smith Nehme. “Some sequences are so melodramatic, you could believe you were watching the Crummles theatrical troupe from Nicholas Nickleby. Orphans is gorgeous, though.”
The Wind (1928), Victor Sjöström. Writing for Bright Lights Film Journal in 2006, Dan Callahan called it “an audacious, intuitive investigation of [Lillian] Gish’s narcissism, female sex fantasies, and the brutal power of Mother Nature as expressed, and reflected, by checked and unchecked male libidos.”
Within Our Gates (1920), Oscar Micheaux. In 2005, Nick Davis noted that the film “sports a harrowing sequence in which Sylvia Landry, its African-American protagonist, is not only beaten and sexually aggressed by a white man, but by one who comes to realize amidst this very encounter that he is her father—speaking not just to his brutishness in the present moment but to an entire history of disavowed sexual violence and natal alienation. Just as thunderous, both in its anger and in its bold execution, is a long flashback sequence that details the lynching of Sylvia’s family, a passage which was customarily excised by craven projectionist even when Gates played to American audiences in 1920.”
Hollywood’s Golden Age
All That Heaven Allows (1955), Douglas Sirk. CRU. Writing for Criterion in 2014, Laura Mulvey noted that the film “contains all the elements of characteristically Sirkian composition: light, shade, color, and camera angles combine with his trademark use of mirrors to break up the surface of the screen. Here are all the components of the ‘melodramatic’ style on which Sirk’s critical reputation is based and that has made him the favorite of later generations of filmmakers, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Quentin Tarantino, from John Waters to Pedro Almodóvar.”
Back Street (1941), Robert Stevenson. Writing for TCM, Andrea Passafiume notes that it’s “still considered the best adaptation” of Fannie Hurst’s 1930 novel. Starring “the debonair Charles Boyer and the soulful Margaret Sullavan as the illicit lovers.”
Bigger Than Life (1956), Nicholas Ray. CRU. From the FSLC: “Full of masterful, psychologically charged widescreen compositions, the film goes even farther than Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause in its savage deconstruction of Eisenhower-era masculinity.”
Christopher Strong (1933), Dorothy Arzner. “The directing seems enervated and the film was a flop, but it’s not one that independent-minded women can easily forget,” wrote Pauline Kael. Katharine Hepburn “is exquisitely gaunt and boyish in her sleek, high-fashion gowns, including one that she says makes her look like a moth. It does; the movie is a moth-and-flame story.”
The Cobweb (1955), Vincente Minnelli. See above.
Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), Ida Lupino. From January 13 through February 24, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will present the series Ida Lupino: Hard, Fast, and Beautiful. As for the film that gives the series its title, Kate MacKay writes: “Lupino’s taut tennis drama depicts the complexities and limits of female ambition in postwar suburban America and contains an early exposé of corruption in amateur sports.”
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Max Ophüls. See above.
Limelight (1952), Charlie Chaplin. CRU. “It is a film by an immigrant of forty years,” wrote Peter von Bagh in 2002. “London is for the one and only time the center of his story, an emotional sum of elements that abound in his oeuvre . . . But the reflexive nature of Limelight makes it equally a film about America (it is as much about America-England as anything Henry James wrote).”
Magnificent Obsession (1954), Douglas Sirk. Another extensive entry at CRU. “Of all his films, Magnificent Obsession stands out for its uniquely over-the-top plotline, and that very outrageousness seems to have prompted a corresponding vigor in Sirk’s direction,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in 2009. See, too, Mark Rappaport on the relationship between Sirk and Rock Hudson.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Leo McCarey. CRU. Bertrand Tavernier in 2010: “The nearly miraculous way in which McCarey manages to avoid the bathos inherent in such a subject, steering clear of sticky pity, of condescension and moralizing sermons—it all transfixed me. It was as though an arrow had struck me and stayed vibrating in my heart.”
Mildred Pierce (1945), Michael Curtiz. CRU. Joan Crawford “could play tough, she could play capable and hardheaded, but in her eyes burned a volatile blend of fiendish energy and quivering need,” writes Imogen Sara Smith. “In Mildred Pierce, this molten core is tamped down by steely restraint; she was never better, and—at something like forty, depending on which birthdate you believe—never more beautiful.”
Now, Voyager (1942), Irving Rapper. In 2005, writing for Slant, Jeremiah Kipp called it “a highly narcotic, swoon-inducing romance in the Bette Davis canon. It’s an unabashed soap opera about how true love gets hindered by social conventions, and manages to squeeze in a moralistic tale of female self-empowerment to boot.”
Only Yesterday (1933), John M. Stahl. See above. Update, 12/25: “The incisive, aphoristic script (credited to three writers) unites diverse strands of political and social history, including Prohibition and the frivolities of the roaring twenties, the spread of socialist ideas, and even the rise of Hollywood itself,” writes Richard Brody in the New Yorker. “But the shift that comes off as the most powerful is the change in gender roles resulting from the movement for women’s rights.”
Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Nicholas Ray. CRU. “Where the attitudes of East of Eden are hopelessly dated and broad, the poetic longing for connection in Rebel Without a Cause will always feel timeless,” wrote Dan Callahan for Slant in 2005.
Some Came Running (1958), Vincente Minnelli. CRU. Frank Sinatra stars in a “story about a prodigal son's return to his provincial Indiana hometown,” writes the Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten. “The hypocrisy, sexual repression, and backwater snobbery here is enough to make Peyton Place look like Vatican City.”
Stella Dallas (1937), King Vidor. Back when Scott Tobias was writing for the Dissolve, he argued that the film “earns the copious tears it jerks, embodying the ‘weepie’ in every respect, yet more complicated and more flush with genuine emotion than a mere soap opera. As played by Barbara Stanwyck, the eponymous character is a near-deranged status-seeker who also happens to have a strong maternal instinct, and the film’s genius comes from putting those separate impulses into conflict.” Update, 1/2: For Sonya Redi at Screen Slate, “the film succeeds in providing the world with one of the most iconic and tragic mother-daughter relationships of all time.”
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder. CRU. It “achieves an ideal balance between emotional involvement and critical distance,” wrote Chris Fujiwara in 2014. “Fear Eats the Soul has an intensity and maturity that qualify it to stand among [Fassbinder’s] masterpieces. It also has a tenderness that is almost unparalleled in the director’s work.”
Beyond Oblivion (1956), Hugo del Carril. From the FSLC: “Two years before Vertigo, this fascinating, archly Gothic Argentine drama mined near-identical themes of erotic obsession and necrophilic desire via the story of a tormented man making over a look-alike woman in the image of his dead wife.”
Brief Encounter (1945), David Lean. CRU. As Kevin Brownlow noted in 2012, it’s “one of the most celebrated and fondly remembered of all British films. Brief Encounter had been transformed from a clever but minor play into a fine, cinematic film. Lean had acquired so much self-confidence that he was keen to break away from [Noël] Coward, much as he loved and admired him.” And Ian Christie has more on that relationship.
Cairo Station (1958), Youssef Chahine. “All human life is here,” wrote the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw in 2002. “Cairo Station is the venue for a blazingly passionate drama about Kenaoui, a lame newspaper vendor, played by Chahine, and his unrequited desire for Hanouma (Hind Rostom), the Bardotesque lemonade seller. Chahine conducts his big cast with uproarious energy, immediacy and freshness.”
The Castle of Purity (1973), Arturo Ripstein. From the Harvard Film Archive: “Its title given to Ripstein by Octavio Paz—and taken from a seminal essay on Marcel Duchamp—The Castle of Purity is itself an absolute work of high art which uses its haunting poetic imagery and rigorous avoidance of explanation to conjure a frightening yet strangely familiar world shadowed with somber metaphors.” Update, 12/18: “Arturo Ripstein’s domestic nightmare is a bright inclusion in Emotion Pictures,” argues Dylan Pasture at Screen Slate, and “not necessarily for how well the film fits what we might imagine as ‘melodrama,’ but how it shows how far the genre’s soul can travel.”
Chains (1949), Raffaello Matarazzo. Noel Murray for the A.V. Club in 2011: “Matarazzo indulges in a few moments of lyricism . . . but mostly, [his] movies are all about piling up plot twists and pathos, and delivering them so straight-faced that viewers can chortle at the overkill and still get caught up in the emotion of it all.”
The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), Ritwik Ghatak. CRU. “Ghatak presents a visually sublime, idiosyncratically overripe, but provocative and deeply personal account of poverty, disillusionment, and exile,” wrote Acquarello in 2002. Update, 1/2: “In a time when the powers of the world and newspapers barely acknowledge refugees and their life stories beyond statistics and numbers, Ghatak’s neo-realist, avant-garde film needs be watched at every possible opportunity,” writes Bedatri Datta Choudhury at Screen Slate.
The Cranes Are Flying (1957), Mikhail Kalatozov. In 2002, Chris Fujiwara suggested that “it may not be difficult for contemporary viewers to recapture the sensation which the film is said to have evoked in those who saw it when it was new: that of a fresh wind sweeping through a musty house.”
Floating Clouds (1955), Mikio Naruse. CRU. In 2005, writing for Slant, Keith Uhlich called it “a frigid Mikio Naruse masterpiece, charting the tempestuous love affair between the needy, often paranoid Yukiko Koda (Hideko Takamine) and the distant, emotionally stoic Tomioka (Masayuki Mori).”
The Housemaid (1960), Kim Ki-young. CRU. For Kyung Hyun Kim, “with its stylistic restraint and self-deprecating humor, it deviates from the excesses and self-seriousness commonly associated with melodrama, giving it an unyielding power.”
The Kneeling Goddess (1947), Roberto Gavaldón. “The most outré of melodramas, it’s a movie of flagrant symbols, blatant coincidences and astounding scenes,” wrote J. Hoberman in the New York Times in 2015.
The Life of Oharu (1952), Kenji Mizoguchi. CRU. It “tells a picaresque story in which the protagonist wanders through various stations on the road of life,” wrote Gilberto Perez in 2013. “But the picaresque protagonist usually has ups and downs, and Oharu has only downs, one after another, an accumulation of sorrows adding up to melodrama.”
Mamma Roma (1962), Pier Paolo Pasolini. CRU. Gary Indiana in 2004: “From a formal viewpoint Mamma Roma is both an extension of the postwar neorealism of Rossellini and De Sica and its repudiation, a film of mostly short, even stuttery scenes broken by longer, surreal passages where Anna Magnani, in the title role, strides along the kind of ill-lit outdoor brothel found in every city, which American pimps and prostitutes refer to as “the track,” soliloquizing about fate as various interlocutors momentarily fall into step with her and then fade into the night.”
The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1938), Teuvo Tulio. From the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London: “Tulio is a Finnish national treasure . . . Specializing in the much-maligned genre of melodrama and heavily influenced by Cukor, Lubitsch and Von Sternberg, his spectacular depictions of suffering and sex cast a deep shadow into the works of subsequent directors such as Aki Kaurismäki and Guy Maddin.” Update, 12/26: For Jon Dieringer at Screen Slate, this is “one of the most sensational and unjustly obscure entries” in the series. “It’s the oldest surviving film by the cult-favorite actor-turned-director, and yet many of his outré tropes are already in place in this thirsty gem.”
Spring in a Small Town (1948), Fei Mu. It’s “the kind of romantic melodrama not uncommon in Chinese entertainment,” wrote Andrew Chan at the House Next Door in 2007, “and any political sentiments it might express beneath the surface don’t fall along immediately apparent party lines. In the West, the story draws comparisons to paradigms not of protest but of delicate social observation and heartache: Chekhov, Edith Wharton, David Lean’s Brief Encounter.”
La Strada (1954), Federico Fellini. CRU. David Ehrenstein in 1988: “A low-key mood study about a broken-down carnival strongman and his half-wit assistant traveling through the bleak backwaters of post-war Italy wouldn’t, at first glance, appear to have much going for it in the way of international critical and commercial appeal. But from the moment of its release in 1954, it was clear that La strada had everything.”
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Jacques Demy. CRU. In 2014, the late Jim Ridley called it “the most affecting of movie musicals, and perhaps the fullest expression of a career-long fascination with the entwining of real life, chance, and the bewitching artifice of cinematic illusion.”
The Age of Innocence (1993), Martin Scorsese. CRU. “In 1993, Scorsese, a son of Little Italy’s working class, noted that he and Wharton, a daughter of the nineteenth-century Knickerbocker elite, weren’t so different,” writes Carrie Rickey for the Library of America. “After all, weren’t his first great movie, Mean Streets, and her last great novel, The Age of Innocence, both the works of tribesmen keenly observing their tribes?” Update, 12/25: As Cosmo Bjorkenheim notes at Screen Slate, the film “entangles Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryderin the web of rumor and mutual suspicion of Gilded Age New York's high society.” Writing for the Notebook, Meredyth Cole finds that “Scorsese simply tried to do something impossible: express an inability to express.”
All About My Mother (1999), Pedro Almodóvar, who “delicately weaves themes from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire into an already florid paella of dramatic and emotional theatrics,” as Ed Gonzalez wrote at Slant in 2001.
Breaking the Waves (1996), Lars von Trier. CRU. In 2014, David Sterritt called it “a thrilling, utterly unpredictable suspense story that propelled von Trier to global recognition as one of the most adventurous writer-directors on the contemporary scene, and easily the most gifted one to come from Scandinavia since Ingmar Bergman emerged in the 1940s.”
The Bridges of Madison County (1995), Clint Eastwood. “Meryl Streep makes Eastwood’s ‘women’s picture’ about the woman,” wrote Leo Goldsmith at Not Coming to a Theater Near You in 2006. “Hoeing in the field, padding around barefoot, and peeling carrots at the sink, Streep invests Francesca with a humanity and humor wholly lacking in Waller’s novel, and makes her newly revived sensuality a good deal more credible.”
Careful (1992), Guy Maddin. Writing for the A.V. Club in 2014, Mike D’Angelo called Careful Maddin’s “finest sustained achievement—he’s sui generis, mastering retro innovations that nobody else even thinks to attempt. No one will ever mistake his work for anyone else’s.”
The Devil’s Cleavage (1973), George Kuchar. From Light Industry: “A closet formalist, Kuchar has crafted a proto-punk fantasia that simultaneously strips bare and radically exaggerates classical Hollywood idioms; the Sirk weepie is here reimagined in a style that is threadbare in production and baroque in sensibility. Melodrama’s sublime artifice, usually fashioned in the service of tragedy, becomes, in these able hands, the stuff of pants-pissing comedy.” Update, 1/4: “Any holistic understanding of the melodramatic milieu is incomplete without an embrace of the perversion of it—be sure to include Kuchar in your exploration of that which is ‘too much,’” writes Stephanie Monohan at Screen Slate.
Far from Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes. CRU. A second reworking of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows after Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Amy Taubin for Film Comment: “‘I wanted to make a film that would make you just weep,’ said Haynes, and indeed he has, although you won’t weep as convulsively as you might in some of Sirk’s films.”
In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-wai. CRU. “Even at their most melodramatic,” wrote Steve Erickson in 2012, “Wong’s love stories are sometimes funny but rarely ironic, played out against a psychically adrift cityscape where lovers don’t have the luxury of irony.”
The Long Day Closes (1992), Terence Davies. CRU. Michael Koresky in 2014: “Concentrated as it is on a fleeting era in his life—the years that Davies has called his happiest, after the death of his father and before the acute terrors of puberty set in—The Long Day Closes is all about the moment as it’s experienced. It offers a cinematic lushness—of cinematography, set and sound design, music—that constitutes a sort of constant ecstasy.” Update, 12/25: “What it lacks in narrative, it makes up in subject matter—it’s variously ‘about’ innocence, family, faith, music, memory, sexual awakening, winter, Britishness, and the act of film-going,” writes Tyler Maxin at Screen Slate. “It’s a movie so vivid and immediate that it leaves very little to recount . . . Of note is the film’s way of elevating middlebrow pop songs into the sacred.”
Pola X (1999), Leos Carax. CRU. “This moody, rapturous adaptation of Pierre, Herman Melville’s gothic follow-up to Moby-Dick, is never less than seriously romantic,” wrote J. Hoberman in the Village Voice in 2000.
Rouge (1987), Stanley Kwan. “Produced by Jackie Chan, Rouge is an odd ghost story as the film does not seek to draw out horror from the supernatural scenario,” wrote Oggs Cruz in 2006. “Instead, the film is quite disarmingly romantic.” Update, 12/24: “For all its time-hopping and its supernatural elements, Rouge is a tearjerker par excellence,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “Kwan is both a phenomenal sensualist—few directors move the camera with more purpose or grace—and an unabashed, yes, sentimentalist. He is never afraid to go for the emotional jugular, and he’s really good at it. Every viewing of Rouge leaves me a wreck.”
Secret Sunshine (2007), Lee Chang-dong. In 2011, Dennis Lim called it “a work of visceral emotions and abstract notions; a study of faith in all its power, strangeness, and cruelty; a look at the particularities of human nature and experience that account for the existence, perhaps even the inevitability, of religion—all of which is to say that it’s an attempt to depict the invisible in what is foremost a visual medium.”
Update, 12/17: For the New York Times, Mike Hale talks with Dennis Lim, who’s now the film society’s director of programming and an organizer of the series. Lim: “Sometimes these tales end badly, sometimes they end well. But in being so lucid about the conditions that bring about their protagonists’ suffering, these are in some ways very progressive films that are very clear-eyed about social ills and the imbalances in bourgeois, patriarchal society. I think that may be key to how we identify with melodramas, and to the eternal relevance of the genre.”
Update, 12/24: “Are human beings even meant to be repeatedly subjected to this many tears over this many days?” asks Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “It’d even be a fun exercise to speculate on what might be included in future installments. Beaches? Steel Magnolias? Lorenzo’s Oil? Stepmom? The Shawshank Redemption? These films are at this point decades old, but they still don’t get enough respect. And the nature of melodrama mandates that such a canon be refreshed and updated on a regular basis, with the addition of more and more previously dismissed titles. But maybe that’s another conversation, for another day. In the meantime, Emotion Pictures makes for a beautiful, noble starting point.”
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