Neo-Melodrama

11/04/2024

Affecting the Tragic

   One way of thinking about contemporary melodrama is to see it as either incorporating the tragic or deviating from the affect of the melodramatic — in other words, deepening the problem melodrama addressed by absorbing once again aspects of tragedy that melodrama in some ways superseded, or by accepting a far higher degree of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity than the genre originally demanded. Yet, and this complicates things, some neo-melodramas insist on both the tragic and the self-aware, believing they can deepen the problem of melodrama by incorporating the very old and the very new, by addressing primal aspects to be found in tragedies thousands of years old, and being well aware of the tropes and expectations that have become standard in melodramatic form. If melodrama allowed, to use a well-worn but always useful phrase from Raymond Williams, a new structure of feeling, then neo-melodrama wants a new structure of feeling again by creating distanciation and yet insisting on first principles.

    This will help us explain why not all new melodramas will be neo-melodramas. Films like The NotebookNotes on a ScandalMillion Dollar Baby, and Monster’s Ball don’t quite alter the structure of feeling enough to pass for the neo-melodramatic. A perfectly accomplished recent remake of A Star is Born doesn’t either: its purpose is very successfully to resurrect a classic that has already been remade several times, and to propose that almost exactly the same feelings are pertinent all over again. In neo-melodrama, the feelings are different as the neo-melodramatic indicates a higher degree of absurdity, a more complicated suspension of disbelief, and a greater awareness of the generic as generic. There is clearly an enormous difference between Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born and Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Cooper makes his film more desperate and explicit than George Cukor’s 1954 version as we see the drunk central male character (played by Cooper), soil his trousers onstage. But the feelings extracted are similar. In Von Trier’s film, those feelings are very complicated indeed as he wants to combine melodrama with religious faith, a realist, hand-held form with digital enhanced interludes, and stock characters with overly perverse or obviously predictable motivations — none more so than his central character Bess (Emily Watson) in the first instance; none more so than the doctor who falls in love with her in the latter. In the best melodramas like Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows or Imitation of Life, or the most brilliantly conventional, like Stella Dallas and Now Voyager, one might find oneself reading the mise en scene as hyperbolic or too categorical. Yet even in Sirk’s oeuvre, we aren’t inclined to believe the film wants actively to work against the emotion it seeks by forcing the viewer to confront the film's exaggeration. Von Trier does, or why offer numerous chapter intertitles in a style distinct from the rest of the film, or why include the church bells up in the sky at the end? If melodrama often wants a clear emotional throughline, von Trier insists on creating the most entangled of emotions, the most restructured of feelings. 

   Williams saw the structure of feeling thus, according to Oxford Reference: “Structure of feeling refers to the different ways of thinking vying to emerge at any one time in history. It appears in the gap between the official discourse of policy and regulations, the popular response to official discourse and its appropriation in literary and other cultural texts. Williams uses the term feeling rather than thought to signal that what is at stake may not yet be articulated in a fully worked-out form, but has rather to be inferred by reading between the lines.” It was a term that could be put alongside but wasn’t at all the same as Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, or Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation. While hegemony suggested an overwhelming and overriding ideological force that the dominant group expected others to conform to, and interpellation proposed how individuals were structurally embroiled in societal forms, Williams’s perspective could be seen as vaguer and thus less assertive. It could include an intuitive grasp of norms often reflected in artworks or in easy assumption. As Williams says, “It is characteristic of such structures that they cannot even recognise as possible any experience beyond their own structural limits; that such varying and possible statements [about death; about social expectation; about fate] become meaningless…” (Modern Tragedy) Different ages will have different structures, with the nature of dying for example: about inheriting obligation in tragedy and inheriting money in a 19th-century novel. Often the best works of a given era, however, will find a way out of the era’s presuppositions, and Williams looks at the post-war novel to see how some writers manage to complicate this structure of feeling; others falling into it. “the fiction of special pleading can be seen in its clearest form in those many contemporary novels which, taking one person’s feelings and needs as absolute, create other persons on these sole terms.” (The Long Revolution). He sees this failing in Room at the Top and Bonjour Tristesse, but says that Catcher in the Rye escapes it with a saving irony, and Member of the Wedding does so because “…its realist dimension, in which the reality of personal feeling, growing into phantasy, interacts at the necessary tension with the world in which the feelings must be lived out.” (The Long Revolution)

 If classic melodramas like Stella Dallas and Now Voyager play into the structure of feeling as self-sacrifice, yet achieve a poignancy that surprisingly survives its era, neo-melodrama is more inclined to interrogate that idea and give it a refractive force. In Breaking the Waves, newlywed Bess is missing her husband and prays that Jan returns home. He is working away on an oil rig and he does indeed return, but only after a terrible accident that means he won’t even be able to leave the house. Bess believes this is her wish coming appallingly true and, in turn, she will sacrifice herself to him in the most outlandish way when she has sex with strangers, as the films shows Jan recovering and Bess dying. Jan at the end of the film is back working on the rigs; Bess is dead but seems as though reincarnated as the bells we see at the end of the film. Von Trier doesn’t quite ask us to believe in miracles, but without entertaining the notion the film is unlikely to have its affective power. If the viewer simply dismisses Bess as a lunatic, God as a useless superstition, and von Trier’s melodramatic throughline manipulative, then this might reflect a far greater naivety on the viewer’s part than von Trier’s. To disbelieve in this instance wouldn’t be just a dismissal of the irrational, it would be rejecting the complexity of the director’s grapple with the melodramatic, the tragic and the theological. To go into Breaking the Waves expecting a well-made dramatic story is one thing; to come out believing the filmmaker has failed to provide one would be a misconception. Von Trier’s purpose has been to renegotiate that dramatic relationship “We've chosen a style that works against the story, which gives it the least opportunity to highlight itself. It would have been far too suffocating. You would not have been able to stand it. What we've done is to take a style and put it over the story like a filter.” Von Trier says. It is “like encoding a television signal, when you pay in order to see a film: here we are encoding a signal for the film, which the viewer will later ensure they decode. The raw, documentary style which I've laid over the film and which actually annuls and contests it, means that we accept the story as it is. (Sight and Sound

    But the film also conflates categories often if not distinct then at least with rules a viewer can distinguish. When Susan Sontag noted in Robert Bresson’s work a spiritual interest, she nevertheless insisted that “the pull towards emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality.” (‘Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson’). If von Trier is practising spiritual style he is doing it very differently, demanding the emotional involvement Bresson resisted. Then there is tragedy. One theory of tragedy proposed by Schelling and others is that the tragic hero is both objectively caught in their predicament and subjectively fighting for their freedom. We “know there is an objective power which threatens to destroy our freedom, and with this firm and certain conviction in our hearts, [we have] to fight against it, to summon up all our freedom and thus to perish.” (An Essay on the Tragic) Peter Szondi quotes this passage as he looks at various philosophical and theoretical positions on the tragic, and later explores Kierkegaard’s angle quite distinct from Schelling’s. As Szondi says of Kierkegaard: “the tragic contradictions’s lack of a way out does not reside in reality, but merely in one’s perspective on the situation.” (An Essay on the Tragic) What von Trier does is take the Kierkegaardian notion of perspective and moves it beyond the diegesis and makes of it a viewer conundrum. There is no longer an objective world that characters subjectively fight against; the subjective and objective have become confused. Did Bess’s prayer to God lead to Jan’s injury; did her sexual sacrifices lead to his recovery? And are the absurd bells hanging in the sky vindication of this sacrifice or von Trier acknowledging the ludicrous nature of his film in a knowing act of cinematic self-sabotage? He takes the exaggeration of its melodrama and insists on turning it into distanciation out of its paradoxical immediacy. The viewer is left potentially shattered by the arduousness of the events, and perplexed by the register in which it is all played out.

   If Breaking the Waves is the neo-melodramatic masterpiece then, like some of the other films we will be addressing, it is not a little indebted to the filmmaker who did more than most to create a reassessment of the genre: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It isn’t only that Fassbinder’s friend and occasional Fassbinder star Udo Kier would go on to become a von Trier regular, it is more especially that Fassbinder created a relationship with melodrama that von Trier could absorb. Like Fassbinder, the Dane became interested in crude emotion as both distancing device and active feeling, as something that could make the viewer laugh and cry not as separate affects, but ones very closely aligned. At the end of Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, the Moroccan immigrant collapses while dancing with his older lover, the German cleaner Emmi. Fassbinder presents it as pathos, with the couple getting back together realising that for all their differences, and for all society’s scorn, they love each other. But Fassbinder adds to the pathos and risks the risible when Ali then keels over. Melodrama often risks the risible by contracting the distance between pathetic event, leading to a dramatic pile-up that leaves the viewer seeing impatient dramaturgy. It is all very well having Emmi and Ali reuniting, and it would be all very well to have Ali collapse a couple of scenes later. But Fassbinder puts two major events into the one scene, and risks bathos over pathos; yet in the process arrives at not so much distance as baffled resistance, with the viewer undecided whether to take this added event seriously as it clearly is for Ali and Emmi, or to laugh at the dramatic implausibility. However, instead of seeing poor filmmaking, better to see it as ambivalent emotion-making. In his Fassbinder biography, Christian Braad Thomsen says that he was at a press conference in the late sixties and heard Fassbinder say he was making films against emotions. Several years afterwards Thomsen asked the director about this, and Fassbinder said he didn’t say this. He said he “was against the exploitation of emotions.” (Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius). Whatever the facts of the incident, by the early seventies Fassbinder was interested no longer in the denial of emotions but a complex exploration of them, finding a place between that exploration while also accepting a dimension of exploitation. The question becomes what is the exploiting of emotion doing, and what devices are in place to create the feeling and inquire into it simultaneously. 

   Our purpose isn’t to look at Fassbinder’s important work but directors who came after him, seeing Fassbinder as no more than a bridge between the Sirkian and the oeuvres of quite different directors who have all absorbed the melodramatic: von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and James Gray. But what Fassbinder and von Trier share is an insistent complication of emotion without at all its rejection. They manipulate but don’t finally exploit, as if forcing the viewer to see the techniques adopted and leaving one in a position of ambivalence, of mocking the conventions adopted and moved by the predicaments explored. Breaking the Waves is probably von Trier’s most obvious engagement with melodrama, but much of his work is drawn to both compressing narrative and characterisational crudeness for the purposes of pushing a throughline. But what he understands about classic melodrama is that just because the story can be pile-driven, and the characterisation serving the plot, this doesn’t mean that the work won’t contain first principles and that the characters won’t be enigmatic. A good example of this in classical melodramatic form is King Vidor’s Stella Dallas. In one scene the mother dresses up outlandishly at a fancy club where she is staying with her daughter. Her daughter sees her mother making a fool of herself but what we don’t know is how deliberate the mother has been in pushing her daughter away from her and into the arms of a wealthy set that includes her biological father. Later in the film, the mother undeniably does so but in this scene, we aren’t so sure, even if we might wonder why a mother who can dress her daughter in the most tasteful of items, and is herself a dress-maker, would be so unaware of her vulgar style. 

   Perhaps it is a question the film doesn’t care to think much about — that what matters is for Stella to make a fool of herself and her daughter to realise that her mother's oblivious to her vulgarity as the daughter increasingly becomes aware that her future rests with her father over her mother. The film may or may not intend the viewer to feel ambivalent in the viewing experience, yet how we perceive Stella will impact on whether we feel pity or admiration. If we believe she acts unthinkingly in this sequence we offer sympathy out of pity; if she does so self-consciously we can see she is the least naive character in the scene rather than the most, and admire her wiles. In von Trier’s work, this ambivalence of perception and the need to access feeling becomes very complicated indeed, and we don’t doubt that von Trier wants these complications as perhaps King Vidor didn’t. Throughout the Danish director’s work there are scenes as obvious as any in Stella Dallas but have passed through the prism of distanciation and the specifics of von Trier’s irony. Von Trier knows that we know that to have a character suddenly fall upon the hardest of times, in Dancer in the Dark, and know too that a hard-up central character is saving what she can for an eye operation, will likely result in Bill stealing the money from Selma (Bjork). It is then the filmmaker's purpose to make it dramatically plausible, or at least acceptable, and this would usually require a greater delineation of Bill’s life, and an extended period between Bill admitting he is in financial trouble, and taking Selma’s money. The screen time is reasonably extended — it is almost thirty minutes before Bill steals the cash — but the poverty Bill pleads seems like a device and we sense this all the more when Selma goes to Bill’s wife and says she needs to speak to her husband. The wife says she knows it all — that Selma has been trying to seduce him, and that Selma and her son need to leave the trailer home owned by Bill, and next to Bill’s house. Selma insists on going upstairs to speak to Bill, takes the money back, and Bill pulls out a gun, gets shot in the struggle and the wife witnesses what looks like Selma killing her husband. “I made a cynical little synopsis” (IndieWire) von Trier says but has also insisted “I am against pedagogic cinema.” (Film Comment) The cynical can take care of the most crude of narrative devices but if a contemporary filmmaker uses them they need to avoid the obviousness of a message. Von Trier shows he understands the codes of the most vulgar of melodramatic works but he also undercuts that vulgarity with a style that asks us to be aware of the manipulations involved. Hence the hand-held camerawork, the absence of non-diegetic music, and the flatness of Bjork’s performance, all working against the melodrama the story insists upon. 

    Each neo-melodramatist will have their own way of absorbing the genre's conventions, while rejecting what might seem like the obliviousness of their original use. Though plenty commentators would reread especially Sirk’s films through the lens of irony and self-reflexivity, this wasn’t how they were generally received:  critics often denounced them and viewers were moved by them. They were successful weepies but never Oscar winners, and  Sirk was never even nominated. Most people were taking them straight, whether in critical rejection or emotional acceptance. Laura Mulvey may reckon: “Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator's reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience.” (Visual and Other Pleasures) But this might be Mulvey’s theoretical head and historical reappraisal coming in. One reason why we can speak of neo-melodrama, and see Fassbinder as a precursor to it, rests on the relative absence of self-consciousness in the original works. This doesn’t make them bad (and some of them are brilliant), but it does make them different from more recent works we are defining as neo-melodramatic — where the tropes rely on a degree of self-consciousness between filmmaker and viewer, even if, in the case of James Gray, that seems moot for critics and viewers who see someone less inclined than Almodovar, Haynes and von Trier to be working with the codes. 

    Few would doubt that Almodovar isn’t fully aware of the melodramatic conventions he draws upon, and if von Trier’s achievement is to move an audience that he is constantly willing to alienate, Almodovar wishes to take the most appalling of life-circumstances and turn them into the most optimistic of endings. He will have people dying in comas and of AIDS, of suicide and patricide. he will show deadly car accidents and show child abuse, and yet leave the viewer in the atmospheric hum of comedy over tragedy. If the tragicomic is often a play that combines elements of comic perspective with tragic purpose, then if Almodovar’s films are tragicomedies they function very differently from say the works of Anton Chekhov — but where a comparison might be fruitful. Writing on Chekhov, Raymond Williams notes that it is important to be wary of ironising the characters in Chekhov’s plays. To see the failed male protagonists as pathetic and humorous, for all the seriousness with which they view their predicament, would be to misconstrue the work. As Williams says, “to deflect it ironically is to cheapen and sentimentalise the whole feeling. But, equally, to abstract it from the whole process of disintegration is to miss the point….For Chekhov, a social breakdown is a personal breakdown.” (Modern Tragedy) Rather than seeing a weak character who is in self-denial, better to see it as a societal problem reflected in a character who doesn’t demand our sympathy but should require our capacity for metonymy: to see the characters as part of a broader symptomatic problem. If we feel sorry for Vanya or Gayev, we fall into sentimentalism. If we regard them as lazy and useless, we miss out on the symptoms they reflect in this pre-revolutionary order as “… a disintegrating society extends its process into individual lives.” (Modern Tragedy)

   This might be very far away from Almodovar’s project, but if we choose to see the Spanish director as tragicomically reworking melodrama, it rests on acknowledging pathos without insisting on its paramountcy, and wishing to blend comic and tragic elements to capture a post-Francoist Spain just as Chekhov analysed pre-revolutionary Russia. If Chekhov is all about constraint and restraint, Almodovar seeks out liberation and dissidence. Yet why we draw them together very briefly, and invoke Williams, is because to understand an aspect of their project, and how we should respond to it, rests on comprehending the society out of which the work comes. Such an approach can lead to leaden claims (post-Watergate suspicion in mid-seventies American film; post-war guilt in Japanese cinema and so on) but this would be unfair to Williams’ reading of Chekhov and would we hope be overly simplifying what we want to do with Almodovar. The Spanish filmmaker seeks an alchemic relationship with unhappiness by turning it into optimism, often through the contingent. Rather than seeing despair as a reflective state, he sees it as an impulsive, even propulsive one: it galvanises characters to generate new situations. In All About My Mother, central character Manuela’s son dies after getting run over by a car, and this leads the mother to leave Madrid and start over in Barcelona, where she reunites with an old friend, befriends a pregnant young woman who will die of AIDS, and will adopt the child of this woman, whose transgender father was also the father of Manuela’s dead son. In Talk to Her, a man’s lover dies in a coma but Marco eventually also realises that Lydia’s true love was another man and, while visiting the hospital hoping for her recovery, becomes friends with a nurse who is looking after another coma patient. When the patient recovers, it looks like Marco and this woman will become lovers. In each instance, there is a lot more going on than that, but for our purposes what matters is how Almodovar takes tragic circumstances and turns them into happy ones.  

   But how does this link up to Spanish history, we might ask, and the answer rests on Almodovar’s capacity to see that, out of the liberation of dictatorship, can come a much broader liberation of self. Few directors have from a certain perspective more completely accepted the benefits of neo-liberal freedom than Almodovar, if we think of Isaiah Berlin’s negative and positive freedoms. Negative freedoms are those where the individual is often left to their own devices, freedom to act with high degrees of autonomy. Positive freedoms are often more coercive. “Positive freedom presupposes, for Berlin, a conception of the self different from that presupposed by negative liberty. For example, highly religious societies and similar forms of society all have in common the idea that in order to be free, individuals must adhere to a rule. There is a higher freedom that represents the truth. Members of those societies who do not recognize this truth must be compelled to do so.” (Contemporary Thinkers) Neo-liberalism is drawn to ideas that play up negative freedoms; that won’t have the state interfering in people’s business. Positive freedoms insist on that interference and often result in oppressive regimes when badly administered. A neo-liberal might be inclined to say positive freedoms are always badly administered. Almodovar may not couch himself as a proselytiser for advanced capitalism, but his films often show materialism meeting socio-sexual liberation. His films are made out of positive freedoms where the state lets you get on with your life, and material prosperity is just something that happens along the way. “This may explain why my films were never anti-Franco. I simply didn’t even recognize his existence. In a way, it’s my revenge against Francoism. I want there to be no shadow or memory of him. Transgression is a moral word and my intention is not to break the rules but simply to impose my characters and their behaviour on the audience.” (Almodovar on Almodovar) More recently Almodovar has been engaged with the problem of Francosim, with Parallel Mothers developing a sub-plot on which the film ends: with buried bodies during the Franco era. However, Almodovar is someone who usually sees freedoms negatively (in the Berlin formulation): they emphasise personal emancipation over societal change.

    However, if his films have a tragicomic quality they reflect society as readily as Chekhov’s reflect his. One watches Almodovar films well aware that his characters’ sex changes, their homosexuality, their promiscuity, their ability to leave a marriage or live with a same-sex partner, would be the dramatic crisis and chief narrative development in a film made in the mid-20th century. But one reason Almodovar’s films are so narratively full, so given to convolutions and digressions, is because people can live such free lives. When in Parallel Mothers, Janis starts an affair with her babysitter Ana, this is just another sexual opportunity that presents itself when two attractive women find themselves sharing a domestic space. That Cruz is a single mum isn’t an issue either — she earns a good living as a magazine photographer. Much is made of Almodovar’s interest in sexual freedoms but they are underpinned by economic growth, a feeling that Spain was becoming a consumerist country and that no director was better at reflecting this than Almodovar. “A prime force generating rapid economic growth was increased domestic demand, which grew by a steep 6 percent in 1986 and by 4.8 percent in 1987, in both years exceeding official projections. During 1988 and 1989, analysts expected demand to remain strong, though at slightly lower levels.” (Country Studies) While the tragicomic dimension of Chekhov’s work emphasised a declinist economy, Almodovar constantly overcomes the tragic with the comic by showing that no matter the emotional losses, there are always new opportunities, new possibilities. Tragedies may catalyse the films (Manuela’s son’s death in All About My Mother; the bullfight that leads to Lydia’s coma in Talk to Her, Ana’s baby’s death in Parallel Mothers) but the unhappiness along the way is usually compensated for by outrageously optimistic conclusions.

    In contrast, Todd Haynes’ reinvention of melodrama in Far From Heaven and Carol is closer to tragedy than comedy partly because the films are set in the past. The social freedoms that Almodovar’s characters enjoy aren’t easily available to women in Eisenhower’s America, and Haynes’ purpose is to take seriously dilemmas that can seem relatively resolved for us now. Why we might ask would Haynes offer stories not so radically different from the melodramas of their time? Nobody is likely to confuse Almodovar or von Trier’s films with anything made within melodrama during the fifties, but part of Haynes’ purpose is perhaps to generate an uncanny sense that his films could almost have been made then. It is this uncanniness that saves him from kitsch or irony, contrary pitfalls that were nevertheless equally possible. If Haynes wanted to escape kitsch, wished to escape the 50s melodramas his work in its attention to period detail would resemble, this could be done ironically. The viewer could see that while for the characters the crises were troublesome, they needn’t be for contemporary viewers, and one adopts an ironic distance towards problems that are no longer our own. Yet to escape either kitsch of irony can become a specifically empathic project. When Janis and Ana go on to be together in Parallel Mothers it has little tension and instead becomes almost an expectation. This is what Almodovar seeks and he knows that we know that such an affair is entirely and easily possible in a contemporary urban environment, and also almost expected of an Almodovar film. Haynes, however, wouldn’t wish for the viewer to hold such assumptions. This doesn’t make him a much better filmmaker than Almodovar, but it does make him much more resistant to the viewer’s demands. Almodovar meets those expectations on his own terms, one that satisfies the viewer and doesn’t feel like Almodovar is simply giving the viewer what they want. He is giving them what he wants. He seeks a weld between the contemporary viewer and contemporary mores. 

       Haynes wants this gap. Speaking of Carol, he says: “Granted, as contemporary viewers, we’re reading every overture with a kind of intentionality, questioning whether each exchange is crossing taboos or not, which is not always a fair judgment. But you do get surprised. The utter unrepresentability, the just unimagined notions of what love between women might look like and how it might be explored, actually allowed for conventions of, say, older women and younger women going to lunch, pursuing each other as friends.” (Film Comment) While Almodovar will casually show the most subversive of relationships, Haynes re-imagines himself in a time where a possible, burgeoning affair with a black gardener (Far from Heaven), homosexual assignations (Far From Heaven) and lesbian love affairs (Carol) aren’t pragmatic likelihoods in a sexually liberated society, but taboos in a prosperous but morally conservative one. When Haynes shows us husband Frank kissing another man in his office in Far From Heaven, this shouldn’t shock us. It is 2002, and we have had Stonewall, gay rights, AIDS. It shouldn’t shock us but it does, and this is because Haynes wants us to see it from the perspective of fifties American and more especially Cathy’s (Julianne Moore) caring but reactionary sensibility. She can’t countenance two men kissing each other and this isn’t only that one of them is her husband, just as she is condescending and a little fearful initially of the black gardener Raymond. When she sees Raymond in her garden, she ask if she can help him, as if to say what the heck is he doing there. He steps towards her, she steps back in alarm. Later, she says when Raymond tells her he has been running a business for six years he should be very proud. The implication is that he should be proud as a black man, as if he has risen above his expected station. The film offers plenty of micro-aggressions, a term coined in 1970 by Chester Middlebrook Pierce, yet it is careful to do so within the context of a kind and sensitive woman who really isn’t aware of what she is saying. 

  Yet this doesn’t lead to the viewer offering condescension of their own, seeing Cathy as a gormless fool, it asks us to empathise with a woman constrained by her time but with feelings less rigid than those around her. Haynes achieves this partly through a narrative that shows Cathy accepting her husband’s homosexuality, and recognising how close she increasingly feels to Raymond, but also, and more especially, in the film’s camerawork and colour scheme. Though its plot resembles All that Heaven Allows, it insists less on homage than interrogation, if quite differently from Fassbinder’s account of the same film in Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder doesn’t imitate Sirk’s form but counters it as he relies on a cruder, even vulgar mise-en-scene with clashing colours, mismatched furniture, and camerawork that often creates an observant troublesome relationship with the story, whether capturing characters within doorframes, or through elaborate tracking shots around the protagonists. 

   In contrast, Haynes’ approach is much closer to Sirk’s. The settings are similarly upper-middle class, the colours precisely symbolic and sumptuously consumerist simultaneously. The camera movements and the musical soundtrack don’t at all play against emotion but tautologise it. When Frank goes to a gay bar, the film shows him in canted angles approaching the place, and then a high-angled, canted shot of him as he walks along the short lane. Everything in the shots are telling us about the risks he is taking and the blue-tinged lighting informs us this is studio artifice but needn’t undermine one’s feeling that Frank is nervously risking his family and career. As Cathy goes to her husband’s office in the evening to drop off some food, she is wearing a scarlet dress and a green coat, matching identically the green exterior of the night porter’s desk, and its red interior. We notice too that the phone is green, a light fitting also, while the flowers on the side are red with a green stem. This gives to the film an artificiality that is nevertheless the opposite of the superficial. It doesn’t so much reflect Cathy’s feelings as absorb them, as though Haynes wants to show Cathy and the other characters engulfed in colours that are both reflective of the conservative fifties and also capable of proposing a world much greater than the societal options. The colours become saturated with affect hard to come by within the polite and restrictive social environment. 

    When thinking of melodrama, Haynes noted that “there is something about melodrama that is unsatisfying, overdetermined, and under-explained. The characters in melodrama do not come to knowledge about their predicament; they are pushed along by the forces and mores of their societies, and ultimately they crumble under the pressure, against their own desires.” (Film Quarterly) There was little point for Haynes in changing the characters in melodrama, making them more psychologically nuanced, more enlightened, capable of transcending their era. Even Frank for all his desires deemed as dissident is as bigoted as anybody else. When he hears Cathy has been in the company of Raymond, and she says is it so terrible that a white woman would be seen talking to a black man, he yells back at her, “Oh please, save me the negro rights.” When he says he has spent eight years building a reputation for himself and his family and all this could be ruined by Cathy’s behaviour, it isn’t as if he is wrong. The whole town has been talking about Raymond and Cathy, and perhaps he might see Cathy’s conversations with Raymond as brazenly public, while his sexual assignations have been much more surreptitious. 

  Yet if this so, what Haynes illustrates is that nobody has much freedom in 50s conservative America and the best you can hope for is the underhand and the hypocritical. Expression is furtive, Haynes proposes, or even subconscious, with Cathy probably unaware for much of the film over the feelings she has for Raymond. “How the hell are these actors going to deal with these roles?” Haynes wondered, “and I remember Julianne Moore saying that Cathy was easy to perform because everything about her is on the surface; she really has no deeper psychological dimension.” (Film Quarterly) This doesn’t mean she is a shallow character; more that she doesn’t have access to thoughts and feelings that could comprehend her predicament. This leaves the burden elsewhere, in Haynes making the colours rather than the characters expressive. When Cathy and Raymond are discussing on the street their predicament, Raymond says “that one person can reach out to another take an interest in another, then maybe for one fleeting instance see beyond the surface, beyond the colour of things.” Cathy wonders in return if we ever do see beyond the surface, with Haynes ambivalent about this question as he has of course throughout the film used colour as a visual scheme to propose that it is often on the surface of things that we can understand the depths. After this exchange, a white man from across the street yells at Raymond and tells him “hands off” as the piano comes in with suspense-building predictability. 

     Haynes is well aware that the music is a cliche just as the canted angles were earlier in the film, but that doesn’t mean he wants merely a self-conscious viewer aware of the codes. Codes matter, he seems to suggest, whether these are the codes of cinema that help us understand what mood and emotion is being created, or the societal expectation placed upon characters like Raymond and Cathy. Who is to say we are any more profound now than we were then, even if a black man talking to a white woman in Connecticut in 2002 would be unlikely to raise the hackles and eyebrows on show here? But the notion that society has conquered prejudice and that people can express themselves directly now, as they could not then, seems nonsense. Each age has its areas of prejudice and the expressive that art often seeks to comprehend if not to resolve. Haynes’ purpose is to have compassion for his characters which he will show in the colour schemes he adopts and the camera movements he chooses. When Cathy walks away saying “you’re so beautiful”, the violins come in, and we have a medium long shot from Ray’s point of view as Cathy goes around the corner. The film cuts back to Ray and the character tracks away from him as he stands still on the street. The shot will have echoes of other melodramas which we might not be able to name but whose aesthetic we will understand, and know that this camera movement represents yearning and devastating loss to this man trapped in a black man’s body in a white man’s culture. Ray doesn’t say that and if he did it wouldn’t have the power of that retreating camera, which insists on expression in the form rather than in the dialogue. 

   In Carol, Haynes returns to fifties America; this time, moments before Eisenhower’s election rather than in the midst of it, and adopts a quite different visual approach. Shot on super 16mm, the film has a rougher image than Far From Heaven, and though showing the influence once again of Edward Hopper, Carol has a grainier, less saturated look. “I didn’t want the film to have a studio look”, cinematographer Ed Lachmann (who also shot Far from Heaven) said, “the conceit was how do you create a naturalistic world in which these women were entrapped?” (Film and Digital Times) In one brilliant shot, we see the titular character and a friend in a hatchback driving in New York, stuck in traffic. The shot is flattened as we see the car in the foreground and layers of New York high rises in the background. The density of the image makes the city encompassing, and Haynes and Lachmann’s more photorealistic approach here nevertheless proposes the characters have no greater freedom. Carol (Cate Blanchett) talks as if she is a lady in control but, when her friend mentions a young woman she has met and been attracted to in a department store, she quickly changes the subject. If Far From Heaven takes the melodramatic and plays up its codes all the better to make the viewer aware of their usage, in Carol, Haynes offers a style closer to the observational and the voyeuristic. 

  There are diegetic reasons for this. The shop worker Therese (Rooney Mara) who falls for Carol also observes her, and a detective has been hired to spy on Carol as well. Yet Haynes also wants, in returning to the fifties, to find a different style in capturing a stifling environment. In Far from Heaven, the style was expressive all the better to suggest the difficulties the characters have of expressing themselves in an environment that would hardly reward it. In Carol, the style is intensive, brooding, subdued, with the characters no less trapped but the atmosphere suggesting the secretive rather than the surreptitious. In Far from Heaven there is a strong and active sense of community, however judgemental and limiting, while in Carol there is instead a greater feeling for individual lives, and especially Therese’s. An adaptation from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Haynes saw a connection between Therese and Highsmith’s other characters in books like The Talented Mr Ripley. He sees the character is “getting overwhelmed by all the signs it’s trying to read, trying to determine whether the person you love feels any need to be close to you. That craziness, that loneliness, that paranoia, but also the pleasure of reading everything—to the point of total distraction from everything else—I found to be such a great premise.” (Film Comment) In Carol, Therese is involved in reading the signs while in Far From Heaven the characters are at the mercy of the signs that we can read, yet where Haynes’ compassion for the characters insists that we don’t read these signs too smugly. 

      It might seem odd to regard Carol as neo-melodramatic at all if we accept that central is an exaggerated and self-conscious affect: that neo-melodrama usually wishes the viewer to feel what they would feel in the earlier films but also show how these feeling are being created, even augmented. Carol may seem too subdued for that, yet this is a dimension of neo-melodrama that we shouldn’t ignore. It can take a problem that might not appear especially pressing as an issue today but by setting it in the past, and creating around the homosexual theme a personal dilemma, we return to it with a strong identification for the dilemma. In this sense, Carol can resemble Brokeback Mountain, both films that take central melodramatic tropes (the personal dilemma at odds with societal expectation) and instead of playing up the tropes insist on downplaying the style. They can see that given a different era, the characters may have settled into marriages as they try to do their duties as husbands and wives, but this becomes a realistic problem and not a melodramatic one, even if Ang Lee and Haynes accept the emotion they seek is closer to the melodramatic than to realism. 

    This doesn’t mean people don’t cry at realist films (from Bicycle Thieves to Kes, from Germany Year Zero to Rosetta) but the principle behind them is not chiefly affect. This would seem to be vital to Breaking the WavesFar From Heaven and All About My Mother, if for different reasons and offering different stylistic choices. However, if we twin Carol with Brokeback Mountain, it rests on the homosexual dilemma meeting a resistance to melodramatic form, while still insisting on the feelings melodrama invokes. There are scenes in Carol that emphasise the glacial and the distant, not just through the telephoto lens but also by using glass. In one scene, when Carol and Therese are staying in a motel, Carol goes to the reception and says they are checking out. The camera remains outside, and we see, creating a super-impositional effect, Carol speaking to the receptionist and view in the reflection from the window the motel’s parking area. It creates a dense image: Carol inside, the glass between and the cars outside and suggests distance rather than immediacy. While Haynes wants in Far from Heaven to saturate us with the images while making us aware of the style he is using; Carol asks us to see the opaqueness of the image rather than the transparency of the form. Haynes frequently shows the camera aloof to events and often consequently uses multi-planar shots all the better to say a camera is there but it doesn’t have privileged status. In one scene, Carol is standing on a stool attending to the Christmas tree and the film offers us in the frame one wall on the left, another in the middle of the screen, and a third on the right as the shot is viewed through three rooms. That it happens to be a point of view shot from Therese’s perspective doesn’t quite alleviate the notion that this is just Haynes pragmatically showing us what Therese sees. It is a reflection of the film’s general style. If Far from Heaven wanted emotion with the film’s approach central to its creation; Carol wishes for it to be manifest despite an aesthetic that is contrary to expressive, absorbent colour. Haynes was interested in looking at photographs by Ruth Orkin, Helen Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier. “All of it became a continuing language: the muted palette, the almost indecipherable temperatures, partly as a result of that palette but also because of how the city looked at this time. Not this cleaned-up, shiny, Eisenhower-era Fifties that I focused on in Far from Heaven.” (Film Comment)

   While Haynes wanted to see if he could generate self-reflexivity with affectivity in the earlier film, creating knowing viewers whose knowingness wouldn’t be stronger than their involvement in the material, in Carol, he wonders if by muting the techniques he insisted on hyperbolising in Far From Heaven melodramatic affect would still be accessible. The answer would seem to be yes, and makes clear that neo-melodrama cannot be addressed chiefly through style. Far from Heaven, like much of Almodovar’s work, is rich in colour and heavy in quotation, while Breaking the Waves is a mixture of the subdued and the absurd, offering muted colour even more pronounced than in Carol, but with exaggeration in the telling as Bess goes a little crazy and the film proposes that her wish be the film’s demand. Perhaps it requires understanding an aspect of Williams’ structures of feeling with Peter Brooks’ the melodramatic imagination. In Brooks’ book of the same title, he mentions a reputed remark by Rene Charles Guilbert de Pixerecourt, that he “wrote for people who did not know how to read; and all that we have said about the importance of the visible and unambiguous sign of melodrama confirms this.” If such a claim is also true of melodrama in film, and that many viewers watching Stella Dallas in the thirties, Now Voyager in the forties, and All that Heaven Allows in the fifties, were not ‘reading’ the images they were offered, then this surely isn’t the case with neo-melodrama. The viewer will be aware enough of the tropes the films are utilising, to feel engaged in the question of it as a particular approach to film. It is one all the filmmakers we are discussing acknowledge. Almodovar says, “out of all the ways of treating melodrama I chose the most luxurious….like Douglas Sirk in which the luxury and artifice are as expressive as the characters. ” (Almodovar on Almodovar) Von Trier believes, “if you want to create a melodrama, you have to furnish it with certain obstacles. And religion provided me with a suitable obstacle.” (Sight and Sound) For Haynes, “the difference between Far from Heaven, for instance, and Carol is that one is a domestic melodrama and the other is a love story. I felt like I hadn’t really explored the love story as a genre and it made me want to watch a lot of love stories. In a different way from the domestic melodrama, the love story is so much about point of view. (The Film Stage) James Gray reckons there is something “extremely beautiful about exploring melodrama.” (IndieWire)

   The tension rests on an awareness of the form and the insistence on the feeling. If melodrama has traditionally been the genre of the weepie, what is the point of making a melodramatic film if one’s self-consciousness, and the audience’s self-consciousness, counters affect? But to fall into traditional melodrama would risk cancelling the affect through the viewer’s awareness of cliche it would seem the filmmaker is unaware of producing. Classic Hollywood melodrama wasn’t expected to have passed through distanciation and post-modernism; Almodovar. Haynes, von Trier have. This leaves a potential dilemma: if the self-reflexive is contrary to affect, producing a knowing viewer over an emotionally captivated one, is there any point in making a melodrama at all?

  This is the question the filmmakers have set out to answer, and James Gray would seem, of the four we are covering, the one who has risked aiming for affect with the minimum of ironic imposition. His films can be viewed as no more than overblown dramas. It is the way some critics have taken his work. Antonia Quirke reckoned “with its self-pity, its anthems for doomed youth, its faux-salient lamentations and studied sentimentality, The Yards actually resembles Rebel Without a Cause. It's very 1950s, promoting the great 1950s lie that man is born innocent and it's the world that corrupts him.” (Independent) Anthony Lane ambivalently admired We Own the Night, saying: “The moral motion of the film is fairly simple—the return, and redemption, of a prodigal son—but Gray steeps his tale in murky complication, and the staging of every scene, be it downbeat or frantic, is so assured that you barely notice the implausibilities.” (The New Yorker) Reviewing The Immigrant, Peter Bradshaw said: “the movie becomes a bizarre tragi-melodrama on a single plaintive note of despair: sluggish, at times entirely implausible, and trapped in its own Stygian gloom.” (Guardian) In Almodovar, Haynes’ and von Trier’s relationship with melodrama they assume we can’t pass through melodrama straight, but it is as though Gray has taken an aspect of von Trier’s concerns and minimised the irony and maximised what makes the Danish director’s films profound works. This is the dimension of tragedy that Breaking the WavesDancer in the DarkDogville and Melancholia, for example, access. For von Trier, the tragic passes through the melodramatic to give self-consciousness to the form without descending into the facile. He wants to exaggerate events all the better to force upon the viewer an awareness of the film as a constructed work without losing sight of the first principle the work must contain. When von Trier early in his career adapted a tragedy (Medea, from an unfilmed treatment by Carl Dreyer) he wasn’t too happy with the result, saying, “Medea doesn’t say much to me these days…Medea was [nevertheless] possibly a precursor to Breaking the Waves in some of its usage of melodramatic form.” (Trier on Von Trier)  

     Straight tragedy was never going to be of much interest to von Trier and by allowing it to pass through melodrama he managed to use the crude conventions of one to arrive at the profundity of the other. This means that what he wants from melodrama is affect; what he seeks from tragedy is underlying principle. While in contemporary terms, catharsis is often taken to mean a release of feeling, this isn’t quite how Aristotle couches it. If Malcolm Heath in his introduction to the Poetics is right, “tragedy discharges the tendency to excess; it thus relieves the pressure which their disordered emotional make-up exerts on them, so that in ordinary life they will not be so prone to indulge the emotion in question.” Melodrama tends to do the opposite and partly why it is closely affiliated with the weepie. Emotion is the thing. In tragedy, emotion is the intermediary to the thing. Von Trier wants a strong intermediary, even strong enough for us to find it risible in its manipulative devices, but all the better to arrive at a troublesome realisation. In Breaking the Waves, he wonders what is self-sacrifice, a term commonly enough applied and frequently evident in melodrama, in films like Stella Dallas and Now Voyager for example. But while these latter are melodramatically strong sacrifices, they are tragically weak. The leading character in each is still very much alive and so are their children (biological in Stella Dallas; adoptive in Now Voyager). But imagine if they themselves had to die, or had to kill their offspring: that would be tragic. This is what von Trier often demands as Bess dies for Jan in Breaking the Waves, and Selma dies so her son can have an eye operation in Dancer in the Dark. He offers melodramatic scenarios contained by tragic consequences, and any emotional release seems secondary to a troubling inquiry into human existence. 

   Gray is far less complicated and provocative than von Trier but he also wants an aspect of the tragic meeting the melodramatic. Speaking of The Immigrant, Dan Callahan, notes “the conception of Ewa is a very old-fashioned one that dates back to Griffith and his favorite actress Lilian Gish; there hasn’t been a heroine this incredibly noble and self-sacrificing since at least the 1940s, when this kind of woman died out as a character type. Did she actually exist in life, or was a woman like Ewa only found in movies and books? (RogerEbert) Gray creates this type of conflation and confusion, drawing on types all the better to make contemporary films that refuse a shallow denouement. Passing through melodrama and reaching for tragedy helps him, as though he is willing to sacrifice characterisation to archetype; realism to the symbolic. This leaves his films often bordering on the portentous and even the ludicrous, but these are the risks he is willing to take to go beyond quotidian drama. In The Yards, Leo and Willie are like brothers, but it seems Leo has taken a fall for Willie and the rest of the gang. He gets into further trouble on release when he and Willie are involved in vandalising some railway tracks to hobble a rival, and a cop ends up in coma over the incident. Leo must go into hiding, but when the authorities search for him at his mother’s apartment, the shock gives her a heart attack. We notice that for all the love these two men have for each other, it isn’t mutually aggrandising, as we see that once again Leo gets held responsible for a crime Willie committed. To further complicate matters, Leo is in love with Willie’s girlfriend Erica and Erica with him, a love that goes back to their youthful years. Willie tries to convince her to stay and as they grapple she falls from the second floor and to her death. 

   We offer this synopsis to understand how the melodramatic and tragic come together, potentially to create the contemporaneously implausible. Leo and Willie aren’t actual brothers, though this is how they function in a drama that invokes great fraternal tensions: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Atreus and Thyestes. It is as if Gray is willing to pile up the coincidences, leave us wondering how close Leo and Willie must really be if Willie lets Leo take the blame for things and Leo has long been in love with Willie’s girlfriend. When we see the contemporaneously implausible this is because we live in a psychological age, and myth and tragedy exist in a pre-psychological one, if we acknowledge remarks by Williams and E. M. Cioran. Williams says “when we now say that the tragic experience is of the irreparable, because the action is followed right through until the hero is dead, we are taking art for the whole, a hero for an action. We think of tragedy as what happens to the hero, but the ordinary tragic action is what happens to the hero.” (Modern Tragedy) Cioran reckons, “compared with the tragic hero, so rich in the adversity that is his eternal patrimony, the novel’s central character seems like a naive candidate for ruin…there is no necessity for his death.” (The Temptation to Exist

   By this reckoning, melodrama becomes the debased form of tragedy: the figures in tragedy become the ciphers of melodrama. The principles at play in tragedy become the manipulated emotions of the melodramatic. Yet some classical melodramas achieve more than the simplicity of their affect even if we might regard the sacrifices the characters make as weak next to those of tragedy. Partly what will make Gray’s work seem pretentious by today’s dramatic standards is he frames the material with a significance that can seem greater than the psychological and the dramatic. Speaking of a scene in We Own the Night, he says, “the introduction of the rain was the idea that the heavens are making their mark on this man’s life. He doesn’t have a say in the matter. It’s a very Greek-tragic idea in a way. What happens to this person in particular, Joaquin [Phoenix], was meant to happen, almost fated by the Gods.” (Studio Daily) In The Yards, when Leo and Willie fight, it starts inside a stairwell and continues out on the street. It is a well-executed fight scene but Gray shoots it with the emphasis on distance rather than immediacy. The film offers a medium shot as they hit the street, then moves into a medium long shot, before offering a long shot as they become tiny figures taking up a small portion of the right-hand side of the frame. Let’s not pretend Gray is Werner Herzog — he returns to close-ups when Erica comes outside. But whether it is the rain or the long-shots, Gray wants to contain drama within the tragic and is happy to accept melodramatic plotting will help him get there. 

     Christine Gledhill quotes Stephen Neale arguing that “whereas in most other genres the establishment of law and order is the object of the narrative, melodrama focuses on problems of living within such order, suggesting not ‘a crisis of that order, but a crisis within it, an ‘inhouse’ arrangement.’” (The Cinema Book) It is this inhouse arrangement Gray starts with but doesn’t want to conclude upon as he ‘overblows’ the drama. In Two Lovers, Gray offers what seems like a standard dilemma: a young man trying to choose between someone whom he is instantly attracted to, Michelle, and the woman the family approves of: her parents are in the process of a business arrangement with Leonard’s father. Added to which, Leonard has recently attempted suicide, couldn’t marry an ex-girlfriend because they both shared the same gene for Tay-Sachs disease, and Michelle is in a complicated relationship with a married man at work. She is also a drug addict. One way of seeing the film is as hopelessly overloaded with crises; another is to see what happens when an ambitious director absorbs Dostoevsky (it is an adaptation of ‘White Nights’) into what could have been a romantic comedy of one man’s dilemma. Instead, it becomes a dense account of fragility, with the film insisting on all the pain the romcom usually resists. If the other directors we have addressed have usually gone more directly to melodrama to show the genre’s tropes and expectations, Gray has been more inclined to use the melodramatic within other genres. Little Odessa is a coming-of-age film, We Own the Night is ostensibly a cop drama; The Yards a crime thriller, Two Lovers a romantic drama. The Immigrant is the closest Gray has got to active melodrama and the film where in interviews he has most openly spoken about the genre, saying, for example: “they made these female-centric melodramas which oftentimes ended rather conveniently but oftentimes were excellent. You know Bette Davis, and that’s a tradition that’s been more or less abandoned so in part I wanted to bring that back a little bit.” (IndieWire)

    While one believes that for Von Trier, Haynes and Almodovar melodrama has been not just actively but self-consciously and self-reflexively absorbed, for Gray it has been a way of making serious American films. As he says, “it was a big struggle to get The Yards finished. It's been a real struggle to try and maintain my integrity as a filmmaker. The film industry is not structured for that, it's a business that is only interested in making as much money as possible.” (Money Into Light) By absorbing melodrama into his work he may have hoped to make films that possess a serious intent within a commercial framework. “Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures” (Melodrama Revised) Linda Williams boldly proclaimed. Yet it appears rare enough for three of our four filmmakers to see it as a form they can actively work within, but perhaps, too, common enough for Gray to work passively with the melodramatic, seeing that it has been a frequently-used American approach that has produced many important works. Speaking of The Immigrant, Gray says it was important that the film was “not melodramatic, but a melodrama. So that was the inspiration for this, and I found it quite rewarding and liberating.” (IndieWire) We would say of his other films, that they aren’t melodramas but melodramatic. However, like von Trier, he wanted, more than Haynes or Almodovar, to absorb the rigour of tragedy allied to the pace and pity of the populist genre. Our claim is not just that melodrama is active in contemporary cinema, as Williams claims it has been active in American cinema generally, but that the genre has also evolved into a newer form that is nothing less than neo-melodrama. 

 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Neo-Melodrama

Affecting the Tragic

One way of thinking about contemporary melodrama is to see it as either incorporating the tragic or deviating from the affect of the melodramatic in other words, deepening the problem melodrama addressed by absorbing once again aspects of tragedy that melodrama in some ways superseded, or by accepting a far higher degree of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity than the genre originally demanded. Yet, and this complicates things, some neo-melodramas insist on both the tragic and the self-aware, believing they can deepen the problem of melodrama by incorporating the very old and the very new, by addressing primal aspects to be found in tragedies thousands of years old, and being well aware of the tropes and expectations that have become standard in melodramatic form. If melodrama allowed, to use a well-worn but always useful phrase from Raymond Williams, a new structure of feeling, then neo-melodrama wants a new structure of feeling again by creating distanciation and yet insisting on first principles.

This will help us explain why not all new melodramas will be neo-melodramas. Films like The Notebook, Notes on a Scandal, Million Dollar Baby, and Monster's Ball don't quite alter the structure of feeling enough to pass for the neo-melodramatic. A perfectly accomplished recent remake of A Star is Born doesn't either: its purpose is very successfully to resurrect a classic that has already been remade several times, and to propose that almost exactly the same feelings are pertinent all over again. In neo-melodrama, the feelings are different as the neo-melodramatic indicates a higher degree of absurdity, a more complicated suspension of disbelief, and a greater awareness of the generic as generic. There is clearly an enormous difference between Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Cooper makes his film more desperate and explicit than George Cukor's 1954 version as we see the drunk central male character (played by Cooper), soil his trousers onstage. But the feelings extracted are similar. In Von Trier's film, those feelings are very complicated indeed as he wants to combine melodrama with religious faith, a realist, hand-held form with digital enhanced interludes, and stock characters with overly perverse or obviously predictable motivations none more so than his central character Bess (Emily Watson) in the first instance; none more so than the doctor who falls in love with her in the latter. In the best melodramas like Douglas Sirk's All that Heaven Allows or Imitation of Life, or the most brilliantly conventional, like Stella Dallas and Now Voyager, one might find oneself reading the mise en scene as hyperbolic or too categorical. Yet even in Sirk's oeuvre, we aren't inclined to believe the film wants actively to work against the emotion it seeks by forcing the viewer to confront the film's exaggeration. Von Trier does, or why offer numerous chapter intertitles in a style distinct from the rest of the film, or why include the church bells up in the sky at the end? If melodrama often wants a clear emotional throughline, von Trier insists on creating the most entangled of emotions, the most restructured of feelings.

Williams saw the structure of feeling thus, according to Oxford Reference: "Structure of feeling refers to the different ways of thinking vying to emerge at any one time in history. It appears in the gap between the official discourse of policy and regulations, the popular response to official discourse and its appropriation in literary and other cultural texts. Williams uses the term feeling rather than thought to signal that what is at stake may not yet be articulated in a fully worked-out form, but has rather to be inferred by reading between the lines." It was a term that could be put alongside but wasn't at all the same as Antonio Gramsci's hegemony, or Louis Althusser's notion of interpellation. While hegemony suggested an overwhelming and overriding ideological force that the dominant group expected others to conform to, and interpellation proposed how individuals were structurally embroiled in societal forms, Williams's perspective could be seen as vaguer and thus less assertive. It could include an intuitive grasp of norms often reflected in artworks or in easy assumption. As Williams says, "It is characteristic of such structures that they cannot even recognise as possible any experience beyond their own structural limits; that such varying and possible statements [about death; about social expectation; about fate] become meaningless..." (Modern Tragedy) Different ages will have different structures, with the nature of dying for example: about inheriting obligation in tragedy and inheriting money in a 19th-century novel. Often the best works of a given era, however, will find a way out of the era's presuppositions, and Williams looks at the post-war novel to see how some writers manage to complicate this structure of feeling; others falling into it. "the fiction of special pleading can be seen in its clearest form in those many contemporary novels which, taking one person's feelings and needs as absolute, create other persons on these sole terms." (The Long Revolution). He sees this failing in Room at the Top and Bonjour Tristesse, but says that Catcher in the Rye escapes it with a saving irony, and Member of the Wedding does so because "...its realist dimension, in which the reality of personal feeling, growing into phantasy, interacts at the necessary tension with the world in which the feelings must be lived out." (The Long Revolution)

If classic melodramas like Stella Dallas and Now Voyager play into the structure of feeling as self-sacrifice, yet achieve a poignancy that surprisingly survives its era, neo-melodrama is more inclined to interrogate that idea and give it a refractive force. In Breaking the Waves, newlywed Bess is missing her husband and prays that Jan returns home. He is working away on an oil rig and he does indeed return, but only after a terrible accident that means he won't even be able to leave the house. Bess believes this is her wish coming appallingly true and, in turn, she will sacrifice herself to him in the most outlandish way when she has sex with strangers, as the films shows Jan recovering and Bess dying. Jan at the end of the film is back working on the rigs; Bess is dead but seems as though reincarnated as the bells we see at the end of the film. Von Trier doesn't quite ask us to believe in miracles, but without entertaining the notion the film is unlikely to have its affective power. If the viewer simply dismisses Bess as a lunatic, God as a useless superstition, and von Trier's melodramatic throughline manipulative, then this might reflect a far greater naivety on the viewer's part than von Trier's. To disbelieve in this instance wouldn't be just a dismissal of the irrational, it would be rejecting the complexity of the director's grapple with the melodramatic, the tragic and the theological. To go into Breaking the Waves expecting a well-made dramatic story is one thing; to come out believing the filmmaker has failed to provide one would be a misconception. Von Trier's purpose has been to renegotiate that dramatic relationship "We've chosen a style that works against the story, which gives it the least opportunity to highlight itself. It would have been far too suffocating. You would not have been able to stand it. What we've done is to take a style and put it over the story like a filter." Von Trier says. It is "like encoding a television signal, when you pay in order to see a film: here we are encoding a signal for the film, which the viewer will later ensure they decode. The raw, documentary style which I've laid over the film and which actually annuls and contests it, means that we accept the story as it is. (Sight and Sound)

But the film also conflates categories often if not distinct then at least with rules a viewer can distinguish. When Susan Sontag noted in Robert Bresson's work a spiritual interest, she nevertheless insisted that "the pull towards emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality." ('Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson'). If von Trier is practising spiritual style he is doing it very differently, demanding the emotional involvement Bresson resisted. Then there is tragedy. One theory of tragedy proposed by Schelling and others is that the tragic hero is both objectively caught in their predicament and subjectively fighting for their freedom. We "know there is an objective power which threatens to destroy our freedom, and with this firm and certain conviction in our hearts, [we have] to fight against it, to summon up all our freedom and thus to perish." (An Essay on the Tragic) Peter Szondi quotes this passage as he looks at various philosophical and theoretical positions on the tragic, and later explores Kierkegaard's angle quite distinct from Schelling's. As Szondi says of Kierkegaard: "the tragic contradictions's lack of a way out does not reside in reality, but merely in one's perspective on the situation." (An Essay on the Tragic) What von Trier does is take the Kierkegaardian notion of perspective and moves it beyond the diegesis and makes of it a viewer conundrum. There is no longer an objective world that characters subjectively fight against; the subjective and objective have become confused. Did Bess's prayer to God lead to Jan's injury; did her sexual sacrifices lead to his recovery? And are the absurd bells hanging in the sky vindication of this sacrifice or von Trier acknowledging the ludicrous nature of his film in a knowing act of cinematic self-sabotage? He takes the exaggeration of its melodrama and insists on turning it into distanciation out of its paradoxical immediacy. The viewer is left potentially shattered by the arduousness of the events, and perplexed by the register in which it is all played out.

If Breaking the Waves is the neo-melodramatic masterpiece then, like some of the other films we will be addressing, it is not a little indebted to the filmmaker who did more than most to create a reassessment of the genre: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It isn't only that Fassbinder's friend and occasional Fassbinder star Udo Kier would go on to become a von Trier regular, it is more especially that Fassbinder created a relationship with melodrama that von Trier could absorb. Like Fassbinder, the Dane became interested in crude emotion as both distancing device and active feeling, as something that could make the viewer laugh and cry not as separate affects, but ones very closely aligned. At the end of Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul, the Moroccan immigrant collapses while dancing with his older lover, the German cleaner Emmi. Fassbinder presents it as pathos, with the couple getting back together realising that for all their differences, and for all society's scorn, they love each other. But Fassbinder adds to the pathos and risks the risible when Ali then keels over. Melodrama often risks the risible by contracting the distance between pathetic event, leading to a dramatic pile-up that leaves the viewer seeing impatient dramaturgy. It is all very well having Emmi and Ali reuniting, and it would be all very well to have Ali collapse a couple of scenes later. But Fassbinder puts two major events into the one scene, and risks bathos over pathos; yet in the process arrives at not so much distance as baffled resistance, with the viewer undecided whether to take this added event seriously as it clearly is for Ali and Emmi, or to laugh at the dramatic implausibility. However, instead of seeing poor filmmaking, better to see it as ambivalent emotion-making. In his Fassbinder biography, Christian Braad Thomsen says that he was at a press conference in the late sixties and heard Fassbinder say he was making films against emotions. Several years afterwards Thomsen asked the director about this, and Fassbinder said he didn't say this. He said he "was against the exploitation of emotions." (Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius). Whatever the facts of the incident, by the early seventies Fassbinder was interested no longer in the denial of emotions but a complex exploration of them, finding a place between that exploration while also accepting a dimension of exploitation. The question becomes what is the exploiting of emotion doing, and what devices are in place to create the feeling and inquire into it simultaneously.

Our purpose isn't to look at Fassbinder's important work but directors who came after him, seeing Fassbinder as no more than a bridge between the Sirkian and the oeuvres of quite different directors who have all absorbed the melodramatic: von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and James Gray. But what Fassbinder and von Trier share is an insistent complication of emotion without at all its rejection. They manipulate but don't finally exploit, as if forcing the viewer to see the techniques adopted and leaving one in a position of ambivalence, of mocking the conventions adopted and moved by the predicaments explored. Breaking the Waves is probably von Trier's most obvious engagement with melodrama, but much of his work is drawn to both compressing narrative and characterisational crudeness for the purposes of pushing a throughline. But what he understands about classic melodrama is that just because the story can be pile-driven, and the characterisation serving the plot, this doesn't mean that the work won't contain first principles and that the characters won't be enigmatic. A good example of this in classical melodramatic form is King Vidor's Stella Dallas. In one scene the mother dresses up outlandishly at a fancy club where she is staying with her daughter. Her daughter sees her mother making a fool of herself but what we don't know is how deliberate the mother has been in pushing her daughter away from her and into the arms of a wealthy set that includes her biological father. Later in the film, the mother undeniably does so but in this scene, we aren't so sure, even if we might wonder why a mother who can dress her daughter in the most tasteful of items, and is herself a dress-maker, would be so unaware of her vulgar style.

Perhaps it is a question the film doesn't care to think much about that what matters is for Stella to make a fool of herself and her daughter to realise that her mother's oblivious to her vulgarity as the daughter increasingly becomes aware that her future rests with her father over her mother. The film may or may not intend the viewer to feel ambivalent in the viewing experience, yet how we perceive Stella will impact on whether we feel pity or admiration. If we believe she acts unthinkingly in this sequence we offer sympathy out of pity; if she does so self-consciously we can see she is the least naive character in the scene rather than the most, and admire her wiles. In von Trier's work, this ambivalence of perception and the need to access feeling becomes very complicated indeed, and we don't doubt that von Trier wants these complications as perhaps King Vidor didn't. Throughout the Danish director's work there are scenes as obvious as any in Stella Dallas but have passed through the prism of distanciation and the specifics of von Trier's irony. Von Trier knows that we know that to have a character suddenly fall upon the hardest of times, in Dancer in the Dark, and know too that a hard-up central character is saving what she can for an eye operation, will likely result in Bill stealing the money from Selma (Bjork). It is then the filmmaker's purpose to make it dramatically plausible, or at least acceptable, and this would usually require a greater delineation of Bill's life, and an extended period between Bill admitting he is in financial trouble, and taking Selma's money. The screen time is reasonably extended it is almost thirty minutes before Bill steals the cash but the poverty Bill pleads seems like a device and we sense this all the more when Selma goes to Bill's wife and says she needs to speak to her husband. The wife says she knows it all that Selma has been trying to seduce him, and that Selma and her son need to leave the trailer home owned by Bill, and next to Bill's house. Selma insists on going upstairs to speak to Bill, takes the money back, and Bill pulls out a gun, gets shot in the struggle and the wife witnesses what looks like Selma killing her husband. "I made a cynical little synopsis" (IndieWire) von Trier says but has also insisted "I am against pedagogic cinema." (Film Comment) The cynical can take care of the most crude of narrative devices but if a contemporary filmmaker uses them they need to avoid the obviousness of a message. Von Trier shows he understands the codes of the most vulgar of melodramatic works but he also undercuts that vulgarity with a style that asks us to be aware of the manipulations involved. Hence the hand-held camerawork, the absence of non-diegetic music, and the flatness of Bjork's performance, all working against the melodrama the story insists upon.

Each neo-melodramatist will have their own way of absorbing the genre's conventions, while rejecting what might seem like the obliviousness of their original use. Though plenty commentators would reread especially Sirk's films through the lens of irony and self-reflexivity, this wasn't how they were generally received: critics often denounced them and viewers were moved by them. They were successful weepies but never Oscar winners, and Sirk was never even nominated. Most people were taking them straight, whether in critical rejection or emotional acceptance. Laura Mulvey may reckon: "Sirk allows a certain interaction between the spectator's reading of mise en scene, and its presence within the diegesis, as though the protagonists, from time to time, can read their dramatic situation with a code similar to that used by the audience." (Visual and Other Pleasures) But this might be Mulvey's theoretical head and historical reappraisal coming in. One reason why we can speak of neo-melodrama, and see Fassbinder as a precursor to it, rests on the relative absence of self-consciousness in the original works. This doesn't make them bad (and some of them are brilliant), but it does make them different from more recent works we are defining as neo-melodramatic where the tropes rely on a degree of self-consciousness between filmmaker and viewer, even if, in the case of James Gray, that seems moot for critics and viewers who see someone less inclined than Almodovar, Haynes and von Trier to be working with the codes.

Few would doubt that Almodovar isn't fully aware of the melodramatic conventions he draws upon, and if von Trier's achievement is to move an audience that he is constantly willing to alienate, Almodovar wishes to take the most appalling of life-circumstances and turn them into the most optimistic of endings. He will have people dying in comas and of AIDS, of suicide and patricide. he will show deadly car accidents and show child abuse, and yet leave the viewer in the atmospheric hum of comedy over tragedy. If the tragicomic is often a play that combines elements of comic perspective with tragic purpose, then if Almodovar's films are tragicomedies they function very differently from say the works of Anton Chekhov but where a comparison might be fruitful. Writing on Chekhov, Raymond Williams notes that it is important to be wary of ironising the characters in Chekhov's plays. To see the failed male protagonists as pathetic and humorous, for all the seriousness with which they view their predicament, would be to misconstrue the work. As Williams says, "to deflect it ironically is to cheapen and sentimentalise the whole feeling. But, equally, to abstract it from the whole process of disintegration is to miss the point....For Chekhov, a social breakdown is a personal breakdown." (Modern Tragedy) Rather than seeing a weak character who is in self-denial, better to see it as a societal problem reflected in a character who doesn't demand our sympathy but should require our capacity for metonymy: to see the characters as part of a broader symptomatic problem. If we feel sorry for Vanya or Gayev, we fall into sentimentalism. If we regard them as lazy and useless, we miss out on the symptoms they reflect in this pre-revolutionary order as "... a disintegrating society extends its process into individual lives." (Modern Tragedy)

This might be very far away from Almodovar's project, but if we choose to see the Spanish director as tragicomically reworking melodrama, it rests on acknowledging pathos without insisting on its paramountcy, and wishing to blend comic and tragic elements to capture a post-Francoist Spain just as Chekhov analysed pre-revolutionary Russia. If Chekhov is all about constraint and restraint, Almodovar seeks out liberation and dissidence. Yet why we draw them together very briefly, and invoke Williams, is because to understand an aspect of their project, and how we should respond to it, rests on comprehending the society out of which the work comes. Such an approach can lead to leaden claims (post-Watergate suspicion in mid-seventies American film; post-war guilt in Japanese cinema and so on) but this would be unfair to Williams' reading of Chekhov and would we hope be overly simplifying what we want to do with Almodovar. The Spanish filmmaker seeks an alchemic relationship with unhappiness by turning it into optimism, often through the contingent. Rather than seeing despair as a reflective state, he sees it as an impulsive, even propulsive one: it galvanises characters to generate new situations. In All About My Mother, central character Manuela's son dies after getting run over by a car, and this leads the mother to leave Madrid and start over in Barcelona, where she reunites with an old friend, befriends a pregnant young woman who will die of AIDS, and will adopt the child of this woman, whose transgender father was also the father of Manuela's dead son. In Talk to Her, a man's lover dies in a coma but Marco eventually also realises that Lydia's true love was another man and, while visiting the hospital hoping for her recovery, becomes friends with a nurse who is looking after another coma patient. When the patient recovers, it looks like Marco and this woman will become lovers. In each instance, there is a lot more going on than that, but for our purposes what matters is how Almodovar takes tragic circumstances and turns them into happy ones.

But how does this link up to Spanish history, we might ask, and the answer rests on Almodovar's capacity to see that, out of the liberation of dictatorship, can come a much broader liberation of self. Few directors have from a certain perspective more completely accepted the benefits of neo-liberal freedom than Almodovar, if we think of Isaiah Berlin's negative and positive freedoms. Negative freedoms are those where the individual is often left to their own devices, freedom to act with high degrees of autonomy. Positive freedoms are often more coercive. "Positive freedom presupposes, for Berlin, a conception of the self different from that presupposed by negative liberty. For example, highly religious societies and similar forms of society all have in common the idea that in order to be free, individuals must adhere to a rule. There is a higher freedom that represents the truth. Members of those societies who do not recognize this truth must be compelled to do so." (Contemporary Thinkers) Neo-liberalism is drawn to ideas that play up negative freedoms; that won't have the state interfering in people's business. Positive freedoms insist on that interference and often result in oppressive regimes when badly administered. A neo-liberal might be inclined to say positive freedoms are always badly administered. Almodovar may not couch himself as a proselytiser for advanced capitalism, but his films often show materialism meeting socio-sexual liberation. His films are made out of positive freedoms where the state lets you get on with your life, and material prosperity is just something that happens along the way. "This may explain why my films were never anti-Franco. I simply didn't even recognize his existence. In a way, it's my revenge against Francoism. I want there to be no shadow or memory of him. Transgression is a moral word and my intention is not to break the rules but simply to impose my characters and their behaviour on the audience." (Almodovar on Almodovar) More recently Almodovar has been engaged with the problem of Francosim, with Parallel Mothers developing a sub-plot on which the film ends: with buried bodies during the Franco era. However, Almodovar is someone who usually sees freedoms negatively (in the Berlin formulation): they emphasise personal emancipation over societal change.

However, if his films have a tragicomic quality they reflect society as readily as Chekhov's reflect his. One watches Almodovar films well aware that his characters' sex changes, their homosexuality, their promiscuity, their ability to leave a marriage or live with a same-sex partner, would be the dramatic crisis and chief narrative development in a film made in the mid-20th century. But one reason Almodovar's films are so narratively full, so given to convolutions and digressions, is because people can live such free lives. When in Parallel Mothers, Janis starts an affair with her babysitter Ana, this is just another sexual opportunity that presents itself when two attractive women find themselves sharing a domestic space. That Cruz is a single mum isn't an issue either she earns a good living as a magazine photographer. Much is made of Almodovar's interest in sexual freedoms but they are underpinned by economic growth, a feeling that Spain was becoming a consumerist country and that no director was better at reflecting this than Almodovar. "A prime force generating rapid economic growth was increased domestic demand, which grew by a steep 6 percent in 1986 and by 4.8 percent in 1987, in both years exceeding official projections. During 1988 and 1989, analysts expected demand to remain strong, though at slightly lower levels." (Country Studies) While the tragicomic dimension of Chekhov's work emphasised a declinist economy, Almodovar constantly overcomes the tragic with the comic by showing that no matter the emotional losses, there are always new opportunities, new possibilities. Tragedies may catalyse the films (Manuela's son's death in All About My Mother; the bullfight that leads to Lydia's coma in Talk to Her, Ana's baby's death in Parallel Mothers) but the unhappiness along the way is usually compensated for by outrageously optimistic conclusions.

In contrast, Todd Haynes' reinvention of melodrama in Far From Heaven and Carol is closer to tragedy than comedy partly because the films are set in the past. The social freedoms that Almodovar's characters enjoy aren't easily available to women in Eisenhower's America, and Haynes' purpose is to take seriously dilemmas that can seem relatively resolved for us now. Why we might ask would Haynes offer stories not so radically different from the melodramas of their time? Nobody is likely to confuse Almodovar or von Trier's films with anything made within melodrama during the fifties, but part of Haynes' purpose is perhaps to generate an uncanny sense that his films could almost have been made then. It is this uncanniness that saves him from kitsch or irony, contrary pitfalls that were nevertheless equally possible. If Haynes wanted to escape kitsch, wished to escape the 50s melodramas his work in its attention to period detail would resemble, this could be done ironically. The viewer could see that while for the characters the crises were troublesome, they needn't be for contemporary viewers, and one adopts an ironic distance towards problems that are no longer our own. Yet to escape either kitsch of irony can become a specifically empathic project. When Janis and Ana go on to be together in Parallel Mothers it has little tension and instead becomes almost an expectation. This is what Almodovar seeks and he knows that we know that such an affair is entirely and easily possible in a contemporary urban environment, and also almost expected of an Almodovar film. Haynes, however, wouldn't wish for the viewer to hold such assumptions. This doesn't make him a much better filmmaker than Almodovar, but it does make him much more resistant to the viewer's demands. Almodovar meets those expectations on his own terms, one that satisfies the viewer and doesn't feel like Almodovar is simply giving the viewer what they want. He is giving them what he wants. He seeks a weld between the contemporary viewer and contemporary mores.

Haynes wants this gap. Speaking of Carol, he says: "Granted, as contemporary viewers, we're reading every overture with a kind of intentionality, questioning whether each exchange is crossing taboos or not, which is not always a fair judgment. But you do get surprised. The utter unrepresentability, the just unimagined notions of what love between women might look like and how it might be explored, actually allowed for conventions of, say, older women and younger women going to lunch, pursuing each other as friends." (Film Comment) While Almodovar will casually show the most subversive of relationships, Haynes re-imagines himself in a time where a possible, burgeoning affair with a black gardener (Far from Heaven), homosexual assignations (Far From Heaven) and lesbian love affairs (Carol) aren't pragmatic likelihoods in a sexually liberated society, but taboos in a prosperous but morally conservative one. When Haynes shows us husband Frank kissing another man in his office in Far From Heaven, this shouldn't shock us. It is 2002, and we have had Stonewall, gay rights, AIDS. It shouldn't shock us but it does, and this is because Haynes wants us to see it from the perspective of fifties American and more especially Cathy's (Julianne Moore) caring but reactionary sensibility. She can't countenance two men kissing each other and this isn't only that one of them is her husband, just as she is condescending and a little fearful initially of the black gardener Raymond. When she sees Raymond in her garden, she ask if she can help him, as if to say what the heck is he doing there. He steps towards her, she steps back in alarm. Later, she says when Raymond tells her he has been running a business for six years he should be very proud. The implication is that he should be proud as a black man, as if he has risen above his expected station. The film offers plenty of micro-aggressions, a term coined in 1970 by Chester Middlebrook Pierce, yet it is careful to do so within the context of a kind and sensitive woman who really isn't aware of what she is saying.

Yet this doesn't lead to the viewer offering condescension of their own, seeing Cathy as a gormless fool, it asks us to empathise with a woman constrained by her time but with feelings less rigid than those around her. Haynes achieves this partly through a narrative that shows Cathy accepting her husband's homosexuality, and recognising how close she increasingly feels to Raymond, but also, and more especially, in the film's camerawork and colour scheme. Though its plot resembles All that Heaven Allows, it insists less on homage than interrogation, if quite differently from Fassbinder's account of the same film in Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder doesn't imitate Sirk's form but counters it as he relies on a cruder, even vulgar mise-en-scene with clashing colours, mismatched furniture, and camerawork that often creates an observant troublesome relationship with the story, whether capturing characters within doorframes, or through elaborate tracking shots around the protagonists.

In contrast, Haynes' approach is much closer to Sirk's. The settings are similarly upper-middle class, the colours precisely symbolic and sumptuously consumerist simultaneously. The camera movements and the musical soundtrack don't at all play against emotion but tautologise it. When Frank goes to a gay bar, the film shows him in canted angles approaching the place, and then a high-angled, canted shot of him as he walks along the short lane. Everything in the shots are telling us about the risks he is taking and the blue-tinged lighting informs us this is studio artifice but needn't undermine one's feeling that Frank is nervously risking his family and career. As Cathy goes to her husband's office in the evening to drop off some food, she is wearing a scarlet dress and a green coat, matching identically the green exterior of the night porter's desk, and its red interior. We notice too that the phone is green, a light fitting also, while the flowers on the side are red with a green stem. This gives to the film an artificiality that is nevertheless the opposite of the superficial. It doesn't so much reflect Cathy's feelings as absorb them, as though Haynes wants to show Cathy and the other characters engulfed in colours that are both reflective of the conservative fifties and also capable of proposing a world much greater than the societal options. The colours become saturated with affect hard to come by within the polite and restrictive social environment.

When thinking of melodrama, Haynes noted that "there is something about melodrama that is unsatisfying, overdetermined, and under-explained. The characters in melodrama do not come to knowledge about their predicament; they are pushed along by the forces and mores of their societies, and ultimately they crumble under the pressure, against their own desires." (Film Quarterly) There was little point for Haynes in changing the characters in melodrama, making them more psychologically nuanced, more enlightened, capable of transcending their era. Even Frank for all his desires deemed as dissident is as bigoted as anybody else. When he hears Cathy has been in the company of Raymond, and she says is it so terrible that a white woman would be seen talking to a black man, he yells back at her, "Oh please, save me the negro rights." When he says he has spent eight years building a reputation for himself and his family and all this could be ruined by Cathy's behaviour, it isn't as if he is wrong. The whole town has been talking about Raymond and Cathy, and perhaps he might see Cathy's conversations with Raymond as brazenly public, while his sexual assignations have been much more surreptitious.

Yet if this so, what Haynes illustrates is that nobody has much freedom in 50s conservative America and the best you can hope for is the underhand and the hypocritical. Expression is furtive, Haynes proposes, or even subconscious, with Cathy probably unaware for much of the film over the feelings she has for Raymond. "How the hell are these actors going to deal with these roles?" Haynes wondered, "and I remember Julianne Moore saying that Cathy was easy to perform because everything about her is on the surface; she really has no deeper psychological dimension." (Film Quarterly) This doesn't mean she is a shallow character; more that she doesn't have access to thoughts and feelings that could comprehend her predicament. This leaves the burden elsewhere, in Haynes making the colours rather than the characters expressive. When Cathy and Raymond are discussing on the street their predicament, Raymond says "that one person can reach out to another take an interest in another, then maybe for one fleeting instance see beyond the surface, beyond the colour of things." Cathy wonders in return if we ever do see beyond the surface, with Haynes ambivalent about this question as he has of course throughout the film used colour as a visual scheme to propose that it is often on the surface of things that we can understand the depths. After this exchange, a white man from across the street yells at Raymond and tells him "hands off" as the piano comes in with suspense-building predictability.

Haynes is well aware that the music is a cliche just as the canted angles were earlier in the film, but that doesn't mean he wants merely a self-conscious viewer aware of the codes. Codes matter, he seems to suggest, whether these are the codes of cinema that help us understand what mood and emotion is being created, or the societal expectation placed upon characters like Raymond and Cathy. Who is to say we are any more profound now than we were then, even if a black man talking to a white woman in Connecticut in 2002 would be unlikely to raise the hackles and eyebrows on show here? But the notion that society has conquered prejudice and that people can express themselves directly now, as they could not then, seems nonsense. Each age has its areas of prejudice and the expressive that art often seeks to comprehend if not to resolve. Haynes' purpose is to have compassion for his characters which he will show in the colour schemes he adopts and the camera movements he chooses. When Cathy walks away saying "you're so beautiful", the violins come in, and we have a medium long shot from Ray's point of view as Cathy goes around the corner. The film cuts back to Ray and the character tracks away from him as he stands still on the street. The shot will have echoes of other melodramas which we might not be able to name but whose aesthetic we will understand, and know that this camera movement represents yearning and devastating loss to this man trapped in a black man's body in a white man's culture. Ray doesn't say that and if he did it wouldn't have the power of that retreating camera, which insists on expression in the form rather than in the dialogue.

In Carol, Haynes returns to fifties America; this time, moments before Eisenhower's election rather than in the midst of it, and adopts a quite different visual approach. Shot on super 16mm, the film has a rougher image than Far From Heaven, and though showing the influence once again of Edward Hopper, Carol has a grainier, less saturated look. "I didn't want the film to have a studio look", cinematographer Ed Lachmann (who also shot Far from Heaven) said, "the conceit was how do you create a naturalistic world in which these women were entrapped?" (Film and Digital Times) In one brilliant shot, we see the titular character and a friend in a hatchback driving in New York, stuck in traffic. The shot is flattened as we see the car in the foreground and layers of New York high rises in the background. The density of the image makes the city encompassing, and Haynes and Lachmann's more photorealistic approach here nevertheless proposes the characters have no greater freedom. Carol (Cate Blanchett) talks as if she is a lady in control but, when her friend mentions a young woman she has met and been attracted to in a department store, she quickly changes the subject. If Far From Heaven takes the melodramatic and plays up its codes all the better to make the viewer aware of their usage, in Carol, Haynes offers a style closer to the observational and the voyeuristic.

There are diegetic reasons for this. The shop worker Therese (Rooney Mara) who falls for Carol also observes her, and a detective has been hired to spy on Carol as well. Yet Haynes also wants, in returning to the fifties, to find a different style in capturing a stifling environment. In Far from Heaven, the style was expressive all the better to suggest the difficulties the characters have of expressing themselves in an environment that would hardly reward it. In Carol, the style is intensive, brooding, subdued, with the characters no less trapped but the atmosphere suggesting the secretive rather than the surreptitious. In Far from Heaven there is a strong and active sense of community, however judgemental and limiting, while in Carol there is instead a greater feeling for individual lives, and especially Therese's. An adaptation from Patricia Highsmith's novel, Haynes saw a connection between Therese and Highsmith's other characters in books like The Talented Mr Ripley. He sees the character is "getting overwhelmed by all the signs it's trying to read, trying to determine whether the person you love feels any need to be close to you. That craziness, that loneliness, that paranoia, but also the pleasure of reading everythingto the point of total distraction from everything elseI found to be such a great premise." (Film Comment) In Carol, Therese is involved in reading the signs while in Far From Heaven the characters are at the mercy of the signs that we can read, yet where Haynes' compassion for the characters insists that we don't read these signs too smugly.

It might seem odd to regard Carol as neo-melodramatic at all if we accept that central is an exaggerated and self-conscious affect: that neo-melodrama usually wishes the viewer to feel what they would feel in the earlier films but also show how these feeling are being created, even augmented. Carol may seem too subdued for that, yet this is a dimension of neo-melodrama that we shouldn't ignore. It can take a problem that might not appear especially pressing as an issue today but by setting it in the past, and creating around the homosexual theme a personal dilemma, we return to it with a strong identification for the dilemma. In this sense, Carol can resemble Brokeback Mountain, both films that take central melodramatic tropes (the personal dilemma at odds with societal expectation) and instead of playing up the tropes insist on downplaying the style. They can see that given a different era, the characters may have settled into marriages as they try to do their duties as husbands and wives, but this becomes a realistic problem and not a melodramatic one, even if Ang Lee and Haynes accept the emotion they seek is closer to the melodramatic than to realism.

This doesn't mean people don't cry at realist films (from Bicycle Thieves to Kes, from Germany Year Zero to Rosetta) but the principle behind them is not chiefly affect. This would seem to be vital to Breaking the Waves, Far From Heaven and All About My Mother, if for different reasons and offering different stylistic choices. However, if we twin Carol with Brokeback Mountain, it rests on the homosexual dilemma meeting a resistance to melodramatic form, while still insisting on the feelings melodrama invokes. There are scenes in Carol that emphasise the glacial and the distant, not just through the telephoto lens but also by using glass. In one scene, when Carol and Therese are staying in a motel, Carol goes to the reception and says they are checking out. The camera remains outside, and we see, creating a super-impositional effect, Carol speaking to the receptionist and view in the reflection from the window the motel's parking area. It creates a dense image: Carol inside, the glass between and the cars outside and suggests distance rather than immediacy. While Haynes wants in Far from Heaven to saturate us with the images while making us aware of the style he is using; Carol asks us to see the opaqueness of the image rather than the transparency of the form. Haynes frequently shows the camera aloof to events and often consequently uses multi-planar shots all the better to say a camera is there but it doesn't have privileged status. In one scene, Carol is standing on a stool attending to the Christmas tree and the film offers us in the frame one wall on the left, another in the middle of the screen, and a third on the right as the shot is viewed through three rooms. That it happens to be a point of view shot from Therese's perspective doesn't quite alleviate the notion that this is just Haynes pragmatically showing us what Therese sees. It is a reflection of the film's general style. If Far from Heaven wanted emotion with the film's approach central to its creation; Carol wishes for it to be manifest despite an aesthetic that is contrary to expressive, absorbent colour. Haynes was interested in looking at photographs by Ruth Orkin, Helen Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier. "All of it became a continuing language: the muted palette, the almost indecipherable temperatures, partly as a result of that palette but also because of how the city looked at this time. Not this cleaned-up, shiny, Eisenhower-era Fifties that I focused on in Far from Heaven." (Film Comment)

While Haynes wanted to see if he could generate self-reflexivity with affectivity in the earlier film, creating knowing viewers whose knowingness wouldn't be stronger than their involvement in the material, in Carol, he wonders if by muting the techniques he insisted on hyperbolising in Far From Heaven melodramatic affect would still be accessible. The answer would seem to be yes, and makes clear that neo-melodrama cannot be addressed chiefly through style. Far from Heaven, like much of Almodovar's work, is rich in colour and heavy in quotation, while Breaking the Waves is a mixture of the subdued and the absurd, offering muted colour even more pronounced than in Carol, but with exaggeration in the telling as Bess goes a little crazy and the film proposes that her wish be the film's demand. Perhaps it requires understanding an aspect of Williams' structures of feeling with Peter Brooks' the melodramatic imagination. In Brooks' book of the same title, he mentions a reputed remark by Rene Charles Guilbert de Pixerecourt, that he "wrote for people who did not know how to read; and all that we have said about the importance of the visible and unambiguous sign of melodrama confirms this." If such a claim is also true of melodrama in film, and that many viewers watching Stella Dallas in the thirties, Now Voyager in the forties, and All that Heaven Allows in the fifties, were not 'reading' the images they were offered, then this surely isn't the case with neo-melodrama. The viewer will be aware enough of the tropes the films are utilising, to feel engaged in the question of it as a particular approach to film. It is one all the filmmakers we are discussing acknowledge. Almodovar says, "out of all the ways of treating melodrama I chose the most luxurious....like Douglas Sirk in which the luxury and artifice are as expressive as the characters. " (Almodovar on Almodovar) Von Trier believes, "if you want to create a melodrama, you have to furnish it with certain obstacles. And religion provided me with a suitable obstacle." (Sight and Sound) For Haynes, "the difference between Far from Heaven, for instance, and Carol is that one is a domestic melodrama and the other is a love story. I felt like I hadn't really explored the love story as a genre and it made me want to watch a lot of love stories. In a different way from the domestic melodrama, the love story is so much about point of view. (The Film Stage) James Gray reckons there is something "extremely beautiful about exploring melodrama." (IndieWire)

The tension rests on an awareness of the form and the insistence on the feeling. If melodrama has traditionally been the genre of the weepie, what is the point of making a melodramatic film if one's self-consciousness, and the audience's self-consciousness, counters affect? But to fall into traditional melodrama would risk cancelling the affect through the viewer's awareness of cliche it would seem the filmmaker is unaware of producing. Classic Hollywood melodrama wasn't expected to have passed through distanciation and post-modernism; Almodovar. Haynes, von Trier have. This leaves a potential dilemma: if the self-reflexive is contrary to affect, producing a knowing viewer over an emotionally captivated one, is there any point in making a melodrama at all?

This is the question the filmmakers have set out to answer, and James Gray would seem, of the four we are covering, the one who has risked aiming for affect with the minimum of ironic imposition. His films can be viewed as no more than overblown dramas. It is the way some critics have taken his work. Antonia Quirke reckoned "with its self-pity, its anthems for doomed youth, its faux-salient lamentations and studied sentimentality, The Yards actually resembles Rebel Without a Cause. It's very 1950s, promoting the great 1950s lie that man is born innocent and it's the world that corrupts him." (Independent) Anthony Lane ambivalently admired We Own the Night, saying: "The moral motion of the film is fairly simplethe return, and redemption, of a prodigal sonbut Gray steeps his tale in murky complication, and the staging of every scene, be it downbeat or frantic, is so assured that you barely notice the implausibilities." (The New Yorker) Reviewing The Immigrant, Peter Bradshaw said: "the movie becomes a bizarre tragi-melodrama on a single plaintive note of despair: sluggish, at times entirely implausible, and trapped in its own Stygian gloom." (Guardian) In Almodovar, Haynes' and von Trier's relationship with melodrama they assume we can't pass through melodrama straight, but it is as though Gray has taken an aspect of von Trier's concerns and minimised the irony and maximised what makes the Danish director's films profound works. This is the dimension of tragedy that Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Melancholia, for example, access. For von Trier, the tragic passes through the melodramatic to give self-consciousness to the form without descending into the facile. He wants to exaggerate events all the better to force upon the viewer an awareness of the film as a constructed work without losing sight of the first principle the work must contain. When von Trier early in his career adapted a tragedy (Medea, from an unfilmed treatment by Carl Dreyer) he wasn't too happy with the result, saying, "Medea doesn't say much to me these days...Medea was [nevertheless] possibly a precursor to Breaking the Waves in some of its usage of melodramatic form." (Trier on Von Trier)

Straight tragedy was never going to be of much interest to von Trier and by allowing it to pass through melodrama he managed to use the crude conventions of one to arrive at the profundity of the other. This means that what he wants from melodrama is affect; what he seeks from tragedy is underlying principle. While in contemporary terms, catharsis is often taken to mean a release of feeling, this isn't quite how Aristotle couches it. If Malcolm Heath in his introduction to the Poetics is right, "tragedy discharges the tendency to excess; it thus relieves the pressure which their disordered emotional make-up exerts on them, so that in ordinary life they will not be so prone to indulge the emotion in question." Melodrama tends to do the opposite and partly why it is closely affiliated with the weepie. Emotion is the thing. In tragedy, emotion is the intermediary to the thing. Von Trier wants a strong intermediary, even strong enough for us to find it risible in its manipulative devices, but all the better to arrive at a troublesome realisation. In Breaking the Waves, he wonders what is self-sacrifice, a term commonly enough applied and frequently evident in melodrama, in films like Stella Dallas and Now Voyager for example. But while these latter are melodramatically strong sacrifices, they are tragically weak. The leading character in each is still very much alive and so are their children (biological in Stella Dallas; adoptive in Now Voyager). But imagine if they themselves had to die, or had to kill their offspring: that would be tragic. This is what von Trier often demands as Bess dies for Jan in Breaking the Waves, and Selma dies so her son can have an eye operation in Dancer in the Dark. He offers melodramatic scenarios contained by tragic consequences, and any emotional release seems secondary to a troubling inquiry into human existence.

Gray is far less complicated and provocative than von Trier but he also wants an aspect of the tragic meeting the melodramatic. Speaking of The Immigrant, Dan Callahan, notes "the conception of Ewa is a very old-fashioned one that dates back to Griffith and his favorite actress Lilian Gish; there hasn't been a heroine this incredibly noble and self-sacrificing since at least the 1940s, when this kind of woman died out as a character type. Did she actually exist in life, or was a woman like Ewa only found in movies and books? (RogerEbert) Gray creates this type of conflation and confusion, drawing on types all the better to make contemporary films that refuse a shallow denouement. Passing through melodrama and reaching for tragedy helps him, as though he is willing to sacrifice characterisation to archetype; realism to the symbolic. This leaves his films often bordering on the portentous and even the ludicrous, but these are the risks he is willing to take to go beyond quotidian drama. In The Yards, Leo and Willie are like brothers, but it seems Leo has taken a fall for Willie and the rest of the gang. He gets into further trouble on release when he and Willie are involved in vandalising some railway tracks to hobble a rival, and a cop ends up in coma over the incident. Leo must go into hiding, but when the authorities search for him at his mother's apartment, the shock gives her a heart attack. We notice that for all the love these two men have for each other, it isn't mutually aggrandising, as we see that once again Leo gets held responsible for a crime Willie committed. To further complicate matters, Leo is in love with Willie's girlfriend Erica and Erica with him, a love that goes back to their youthful years. Willie tries to convince her to stay and as they grapple she falls from the second floor and to her death.

We offer this synopsis to understand how the melodramatic and tragic come together, potentially to create the contemporaneously implausible. Leo and Willie aren't actual brothers, though this is how they function in a drama that invokes great fraternal tensions: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Atreus and Thyestes. It is as if Gray is willing to pile up the coincidences, leave us wondering how close Leo and Willie must really be if Willie lets Leo take the blame for things and Leo has long been in love with Willie's girlfriend. When we see the contemporaneously implausible this is because we live in a psychological age, and myth and tragedy exist in a pre-psychological one, if we acknowledge remarks by Williams and E. M. Cioran. Williams says "when we now say that the tragic experience is of the irreparable, because the action is followed right through until the hero is dead, we are taking art for the whole, a hero for an action. We think of tragedy as what happens to the hero, but the ordinary tragic action is what happens to the hero." (Modern Tragedy) Cioran reckons, "compared with the tragic hero, so rich in the adversity that is his eternal patrimony, the novel's central character seems like a naive candidate for ruin...there is no necessity for his death." (The Temptation to Exist)

By this reckoning, melodrama becomes the debased form of tragedy: the figures in tragedy become the ciphers of melodrama. The principles at play in tragedy become the manipulated emotions of the melodramatic. Yet some classical melodramas achieve more than the simplicity of their affect even if we might regard the sacrifices the characters make as weak next to those of tragedy. Partly what will make Gray's work seem pretentious by today's dramatic standards is he frames the material with a significance that can seem greater than the psychological and the dramatic. Speaking of a scene in We Own the Night, he says, "the introduction of the rain was the idea that the heavens are making their mark on this man's life. He doesn't have a say in the matter. It's a very Greek-tragic idea in a way. What happens to this person in particular, Joaquin [Phoenix], was meant to happen, almost fated by the Gods." (Studio Daily) In The Yards, when Leo and Willie fight, it starts inside a stairwell and continues out on the street. It is a well-executed fight scene but Gray shoots it with the emphasis on distance rather than immediacy. The film offers a medium shot as they hit the street, then moves into a medium long shot, before offering a long shot as they become tiny figures taking up a small portion of the right-hand side of the frame. Let's not pretend Gray is Werner Herzog he returns to close-ups when Erica comes outside. But whether it is the rain or the long-shots, Gray wants to contain drama within the tragic and is happy to accept melodramatic plotting will help him get there.

Christine Gledhill quotes Stephen Neale arguing that "whereas in most other genres the establishment of law and order is the object of the narrative, melodrama focuses on problems of living within such order, suggesting not 'a crisis of that order, but a crisis within it, an 'inhouse' arrangement.'" (The Cinema Book) It is this inhouse arrangement Gray starts with but doesn't want to conclude upon as he 'overblows' the drama. In Two Lovers, Gray offers what seems like a standard dilemma: a young man trying to choose between someone whom he is instantly attracted to, Michelle, and the woman the family approves of: her parents are in the process of a business arrangement with Leonard's father. Added to which, Leonard has recently attempted suicide, couldn't marry an ex-girlfriend because they both shared the same gene for Tay-Sachs disease, and Michelle is in a complicated relationship with a married man at work. She is also a drug addict. One way of seeing the film is as hopelessly overloaded with crises; another is to see what happens when an ambitious director absorbs Dostoevsky (it is an adaptation of 'White Nights') into what could have been a romantic comedy of one man's dilemma. Instead, it becomes a dense account of fragility, with the film insisting on all the pain the romcom usually resists. If the other directors we have addressed have usually gone more directly to melodrama to show the genre's tropes and expectations, Gray has been more inclined to use the melodramatic within other genres. Little Odessa is a coming-of-age film, We Own the Night is ostensibly a cop drama; The Yards a crime thriller, Two Lovers a romantic drama. The Immigrant is the closest Gray has got to active melodrama and the film where in interviews he has most openly spoken about the genre, saying, for example: "they made these female-centric melodramas which oftentimes ended rather conveniently but oftentimes were excellent. You know Bette Davis, and that's a tradition that's been more or less abandoned so in part I wanted to bring that back a little bit." (IndieWire)

While one believes that for Von Trier, Haynes and Almodovar melodrama has been not just actively but self-consciously and self-reflexively absorbed, for Gray it has been a way of making serious American films. As he says, "it was a big struggle to get The Yards finished. It's been a real struggle to try and maintain my integrity as a filmmaker. The film industry is not structured for that, it's a business that is only interested in making as much money as possible." (Money Into Light) By absorbing melodrama into his work he may have hoped to make films that possess a serious intent within a commercial framework. "Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures" (Melodrama Revised) Linda Williams boldly proclaimed. Yet it appears rare enough for three of our four filmmakers to see it as a form they can actively work within, but perhaps, too, common enough for Gray to work passively with the melodramatic, seeing that it has been a frequently-used American approach that has produced many important works. Speaking of The Immigrant, Gray says it was important that the film was "not melodramatic, but a melodrama. So that was the inspiration for this, and I found it quite rewarding and liberating." (IndieWire) We would say of his other films, that they aren't melodramas but melodramatic. However, like von Trier, he wanted, more than Haynes or Almodovar, to absorb the rigour of tragedy allied to the pace and pity of the populist genre. Our claim is not just that melodrama is active in contemporary cinema, as Williams claims it has been active in American cinema generally, but that the genre has also evolved into a newer form that is nothing less than neo-melodrama.


© Tony McKibbin