We’ve heard of film noir and we’ve heard of melodrama, but recently I heard of a genre that combines the two: melodrama noir. In film noir, the protagonist is a man who’s done in by his passion for the femme fatale. Sex, then becomes the source of his undoing. The protagonist in melodrama noir, in contrast, is female and as such, the genre explores the darker side of female preoccupations such as motherhood, femininity, female sexuality, and family relations.
Mildred Pierce is an example of the genre. The movie version differs substantially from the book, but both center around the eponymous character, a smart, enterprising and ambitious woman who finds great material success but who can never earn the love of her monstrously selfish eldest, Veda. Mildred Pierce is a great film and in many ways it is still ahead of its time, as it dares to explore the possibility that sometimes children cannibalize their mothers. Mildred is a fully realized character, even if she’s deluded when it comes to her own daughter’s selfishness. She’s not a perfect mother, but she’s bought into the idea that mothers must sacrifice everything for their children to the extent that her own daughter manipulates her for her own ends. This idea remains revenant to this day, especially as the pressure to be a perfect mother has been dialed up to eleven.
Another lesser known example of the genre is Roberto Gavaldón’s La Otra (The Other One). Dolores del Río plays the dual roles of Magdalena and María, twin sisters who have chosen completely different paths in life. Magdalena has used her feminine wiles and sexuality to snag a rich husband and live the good life, while her sister Maria works as a manicurist. Maria quits her job when she realizes her boss is trying to pimp her out to a client. Her financial woes lead her to envy her sister’s life of luxury, to the point that Maria kills her and takes her place. And although that may seem like a huge spoiler, the movie’s plot hinges on one twist after the other and an ironic ending that makes for a cinematic wild ride. Like in Mildred Pierce, the danger’s close to home.
Few of us have been exposed to the world we see in film noir and detective fiction; most of us, however, have family and, as such, melodrama noir packs a disturbing punch.
I recently read that in China people have become so accustomed to seeing closed-circuit cameras everywhere that they get nervous in areas without them. Think about that. The natural world has no ccTV. When it first came out, it made a lot of people nervous they were being surveilled or followed. For most of human existence, people lived without any cameras or recording devices and humankind survived. And now, ccTV cameras are so ubiquitous people are afraid or uncomfortable without them. It’s a powerful lesson about fear and comfort.
That kind of fear is an illusion. There is no real danger, just a lack of comfort or a new experience. But it can feel real and scary! Very often, we’re terrified of something just because we’ve become comfortable to a certain reality — but if you change that reality, you can still survive. Sometimes you can even thrive. And once you get to the other side, the place without ccTV, where you can truly be alone without anyone watching you, you can actually feel liberated. You’ve stepped into a new world and that’s exhilarating.
This weekend I watched Johnny Guitar for the first time since I was in film school. What struck me immediately was the pacing. From the moment Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) walks into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford), I was mesmerized. Director Nicholas Ray knows how to use silence masterfully. There’s no music or dialogue, yet there’s already tension in the air, as Johnny looks around the empty place and makes eye contact with Vienna’s three employees. He’s a stranger and clearly they’re on edge.
The effect is mesmerizing, and is compounded when Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) enters a few minutes later accompanied by the Sheriff (Frank Ferguson) and about a dozen men who will later form her posse. Emma and her men are looking for the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady) and his men, who they accuse of robbing a stagecoach. But the real tension is generated between these two powerful women, their mutual hatred and their sublimated sexual attraction.
Ray understands the power of this psychological premise and lets the story unfold on its own pace. He doesn’t overload the plot. There are no unnecessary surprise twists. The audience knows the women are in the grip of powerful emotional forces which will lead to a violent climax and we watch, almost as if caught by the tide ourselves. It’s a perfect example of a director trusting the material. If you have a powerful conflict, you don’t need pyrotechnics or plot twists get in the way; if anything, you can let the story unfurl at its own pace. The effect is hypnotic and emotionally satisfying.
Continuing my exploration of whether or not flashbacks are a necessary device in modern screenwriting, today I’m going to write about a movie whose entire plot hinges on events that happened before the action starts — and the filmmaker doesn’t rely on flashbacks to convey their significance. The movie is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past.
The story centers around Marie (Bérénice Bejo) , her second husband, Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), and her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad abandoned Marie and her two daughters five years earlier to return to Iran. He’s come back to Paris to grant Marie the divorce she requested so that she can marry Samir, who has a young son himself. But it turns out Samir is already married — to a woman languishing in a coma. Marie’s relationship history — or baggage — is constantly impinging on her current plans with Samir. When it comes to love, you can never completely free yourself from the past, (particularly if you have children.) And, like I said earlier, director Farhadi conveys this complicated history without a single flashback. In order to achieve that, Farhadi relies on a different narrative technique: by using Ahmad, in the role of the newcomer.
This works particularly well because Farhadi does not just use Ahmad as a device; he is an integral part of the love triangle. Also, Ahmad has been away for a long enough period of time that his complete ignorance of the current facts makes sense; his questions don’t jolt the audience out of the story or smack us as unrealistic. Yet Ahmad has not been away so long that the children have completely forgotten him. He is also a natural peacemaker, so it makes sense when Marie asks him to draw out her teenage daughter, who resents the new fiancé.
Farhadi is an elegant storyteller, so Ahmad’s inquiries also drive the plot. Maybe this is one reason Farhadi’s movies often feel like thrillers: there’s always a mystery at the heart of the story. In The Past, Ahmad delves into the reason Samir’s wife attempted suicide and ended up in a coma. Also, much like in film noir, the plot is further complicated by the fact that all the characters have their own motives for being less than honest about their own complicity in that suicide attempt — including Ahmad himself and the kids. Farhadi’s elegant use of character dynamics gives us a deeper grasp of human relationships, particularly in connection to truth and culpability.
When it comes to the elusive nature of ever knowing what truly happened, Farhadi has learned from Rashomon. Except he undergoes that exploration without any flashbacks. In a way, this involves the audience more because it feels like we’re finding stuff out along with Ahmad.
Flashbacks are a controversial device in movies nowadays. I’ve heard a lot of screenwriters be adamantly opposed to them. “They’re a lazy way to relay information,” those against them argue. We’ve all seen movies in which we’re jolted out of a story by a flashback. My take is that they’re useful cinematic devices and not just for giving backstory.