Marvellous Melodrama: new collection on demand
The Power of Melodrama in Cinema
Pawel Pawlikowski’s rapturous, romantic Cold War, which details a couple’s relationship over the course of 15 years and across a politically turbulent post-war Europe, underpins the power of the melodrama. To celebrate its arrival in cinemas and on Curzon on Demand, we have curated a selection of key melodramas, showcasing the range of this all-too-underrated genre.
Like any genre, the boundaries of the melodrama can be difficult to define. At its most dramatic, it can cross paths with the thriller, while in its lightest moments it can play out like a comedy. It’s why Asghar Farhadi’s films have been discussed in the same sentence as Alfred Hitchcock. His Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) is both a moving portrait of a family in freefall, yet individual scenes are excruciating in their tension, beginning with a simple act of negligence that spirals rapidly out of control. In the case of Brooklyn (2015), a beautifully crafted adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s bestselling novel, a young woman’s loneliness in a new city is punctuated with moments of tender mirth, often supplied by Julie Walters’ landlady. But both these films are melodramas that explore the turbulence of human relationships, whether they’re familial or romantic.
Another two contrasting examples of the family drama are Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Still Alice (2014). Terence Davies’ drama, which is generally regarded as one of the best British films, depicts working class family life in Liverpool of the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a stunning evocation of an era, based loosely on Davies’ own experiences. The family in Still Alice might appear more placid and loving, but when Julianne Moore’s mother is diagnosed with a strain of Alzheimer’s disease shortly after her 50th birthday, fissures in the family unit soon become apparent. Moore’s Oscar-winning performance is bolstered by excellent support from Alec Baldwin as her frequently absent husband, and Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth as her two, very different daughters.
Another actor who received an Oscar for her performance in an elegant melodrama is Marion Cotillard, whose breakthrough portrayal of French chanteuse Édith Piaf in La Vie en rose (2007) remains one of the finest award winners of recent years. A non-linear series of moments defining the singer’s life gradually builds into a compelling story of a complex and troubled life lived in the limelight. Cotillard disappears into the role and her performance balances the incandescence of Piaf’s stage appearances with the volatility of her behaviour in her private life.
Heightened passions dominate two melodramas set in rural, sparsely populated worlds. In The Light Between Oceans (2016), from Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) director Derek Cianfrance, a young couple working in a lighthouse discover a baby washed up in a boat upon the rocks. It initially seems to be a beacon of hope to them, but their family plans compromised when they encounter the baby’s mother. Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz fire on all cylinders in this moving tale. Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) works in a very different, much rawer register, thanks in no small part to Emily Watson’s breakthrough performance as a devoutly religious young Scotswoman whose world shaken when she meets a Danish oil rig worker. The joy of sex soon gives way to profound grief when he is severely injured. But that’s just the start of this young woman’s journey into a dark, troubling place, as obsession and religious guilt take hold.
Von Trier’s film is one example of European cinema’s pushing the boundaries of the melodrama. In the 1950s and 1960s, Luchino Visconti produced some of the most impressive family and period melodramas. Late in his career, he was responsible for a handsome adaptation of Gabriele d'Annunzio’s 1895 novel L’Innocente (1976), which detailed a doomed love triangle. It’s a sumptuous evocation of a bygone era, whose devastating denouement is all the more powerful for the restraint that Visconti shows throughout.
In the more recent United States of Love (2016), acclaimed Polish director Tomasz Wasilewski (2013’s Floating Skyscrapers) looks back to the last days of Communist rule in Warsaw, detailing the intersecting lives of people who live in one tower block. The humorous opening soon gives way to the drama in each of the character’s lives, which encompasses unrequited love, the pitfalls of ambition, grief and the pain of rejection.
If there’s one director Wasilewski looks to with his work, it’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Alongside Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder is one of the great melodrama directors, placing women at the heart of the drama, but also exploring gender roles in society. Fear Eats the Soul (1973) might just be this brilliant filmmaker’s masterpiece. Detailing class, race and gender conflict, as it depicts the growing affection between an older German woman and a younger Moroccan migrant worker, Fear Eats the Soul is one of the greatest melodramas and the perfect stopping point after Cold War in exploring this collection.
The new Marvellous Melodrama collection is available to stream now on Curzon On Demand
Cold War: the ultimate melodrama?