He Knows Melodrama When He Sees It

He Knows Melodrama When He Sees It

Is melodrama more a function of content or style?

If you scan the program it’s striking how many plot elements and themes recur, things like adultery and forbidden love and difficult family relationships. Fallen women or wronged women as the protagonists. In terms of content you can definitely see a through line. In terms of style, I think it’s quite different. There are so many ways to generate intensity of emotion onscreen, and one of the pleasures of seeing these films together is seeing how diverse they are. Some hew closer to realism than others. Some are much more excessive, feverish. I don’t think there’s a melodramatic style.

“Melodrama” often has a pejorative quality. If it’s melodrama, it isn’t good.

A lot of it may have to do with the evolution of the term, how Douglas Sirk’s films didn’t start to be taken seriously by scholars and theorists until the 1970s, and then by filmmakers and audiences in the years to follow.

You’re showing three Sirk films, “All That Heaven Allows,” “Magnificent Obsession” and “Imitation of Life,” as well as several explicit homages to Sirk.

He was probably the most excessive, the one who would go furthest. If you look at “Magnificent Obsession,” the things that happen are just beyond belief, in terms of plot twists, improbabilities, coincidences. And somehow there’s a kind of faith that this will work. It’s completely preposterous as it plays out, and you’re kind of amazed that even as you are invited to laugh at it because of its absurdity, you’re also moved at the same time.

The ability to hold these contradictory positions, to engender these contradictory emotions, makes for a really complex text. I think Sirk has made the most complex, the naughtiest, melodramas. We built the program out from Sirk.

Magnificent Obsession (1954) trailer Video by dyran

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” is essentially a remake of “All That Heaven Allows.” But its style is so distanced, so artificial.

Artifice is a kind of distance, even in Sirk. All those crazy mirrored shots and exaggerated performances. These things don’t necessarily pull the viewer in. I think the relationship to artifice is central to a lot of these films. Almodóvar is another stylized filmmaker whose films are deeply emotional. Emotion rises through use of color, use of music. What is filmmaking if not the use of surfaces? These filmmakers are unabashed about using artifice.

What’s a film in the series that stretches your definition of melodrama?

“Pola X” is a film where all the elements of melodrama are recognizable, it’s about buried family secrets, incest and forbidden love. But it isn’t told in this glossy, sweep-you-off your feet style. Instead it’s very jolting and intense in a way that doesn’t resemble more classical melodramas. I wanted to include that to show how a purely personal filmmaker like Leos Carax, somebody who has a very particular way of seeing the world, would make a melodramatic film. Unlike, say, Todd Haynes, who’s really a scholar in his own right, and as he’s making a melodrama like “Far From Heaven” it’s almost like the film has footnotes, it has references to Sirk that are so thoughtfully done.


Julianne More in the Todd Haynes drama “Far From Heaven.”

Universal Pictures

Is there an audience that responds more strongly to melodrama?

It’s a good question, and I don’t know.

O.K., I’ll just come out and ask it. Does a gay audience have a particular affinity for melodrama? Not that there’s such a thing as an overall gay sensibility.

No, I think there is. And I think there’s an interesting way to talk about it which I leave to you to figure out. I think because it is a genre of suffering, to a large degree a genre of female suffering. And there’s obviously a relationship of gay men and female icons through pop culture. Certainly queer filmmakers like Fassbinder and Haynes were the ones who repurposed Sirk most creatively and most vigorously. But I think wrapped up in this idea of its being a genre of suffering is also that it’s a genre of empowerment.

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 cleareyed 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.

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