All the Feels

With the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “International Melodrama” series, it’s high time to bring your hearts to the movies


I cannot even begin to express adequately the depth and range of feelings on display at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama” series, which began on December 13 and continues through January 7. For one thing, it’s a huge list of movies — 62 titles over 26 days. For another thing, I’d also probably die. Are human beings even meant to be repeatedly subjected to this many tears over this many days?

It’s actually a question worth asking, and one that relates to criticism as well. As a general rule, ordinary viewers don’t see as many movies as critics do and, as a result, tend to process certain types of emotion onscreen differently; if they go to a movie and cry, that’s usually a good thing. Critics, on the other hand, love to deride what we call “sentimentality.” Read us covering any film festival and you’ll find a lot of harrumphing about works that, to our mind, score cheap tears, exploit human tragedies, or fall into predictable patterns of miserabilism. Partly, there’s something about the critical sensibility that fosters such suspicion. “Isn’t it time we stopped accepting in film criticism an anti-emotionality, a phony rationalism which we know to be not just harmful but absurd, in any other context?” the great British critic Raymond Durgnat wrote in his 1967 book, Films and Feelings. “Isn’t it time we plucked up our courage and allowed our hearts as well as our heads to go to the pictures?” It was time then, and it’s still time now.

But more and more, I wonder if it’s also an act of self-preservation on the part of the critic to distrust certain types of sentiment. What are you supposed to do when you see as many as five films a day, with each one demanding that you feel something deeply: outrage, shock, despair, compassion, horror, or love. Give in too readily and you might just lose your mind. Resist too hard, and you might do the films themselves a disservice. At the same time, we’ve been crying at the movies for as long as the movies have been around. Right from the beginning, cinema’s ability to directly convey emotion was one of its chief drawing points. And many filmmakers developed strategies to enhance those feelings — stylistic and narrative devices designed to authenticate them.

Compare F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans with Wu Yonggang’s lovely, haunting The Goddess (1934), starring the great Chinese silent actress Ruan Lingyu. Murnau’s film, about an adulterous husband and his angelic wife who attempt to reconcile after he tries to kill her (!), is justly celebrated for the director’s stylistic boldness: his sinewy camera moves, his creative montages, his orchestration of foreground and background movement. (Watch the way the cars that lumber toward our desperate protagonists as they cross a busy street take on an almost symbolic dimension.) The Goddess, though handsomely photographed, favors simple compositions that privilege its surprisingly subtle performances. Despite the harrowing incidents of the plot, Ruan Lingyu eschews histrionics; a simple glance downward or a delicate move of her shoulders is enough to captivate us, and Wu Yonggang largely gets out of her way. Contrast that with the acting in Sunrise, which is often quite over-the-top, and might have come off as ridiculous were it not for Murnau’s cinematic pyrotechnics. Through such divergent approaches, both films manage to be absolutely devastating.

Max Ophüls, it could be said, combined both such approaches in his work. Though Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) doesn’t quite feature as many of the endless, dance-like tracking shots that distinguish efforts like Lola Montès (1955), it still demonstrates Ophüls’s remarkable control over his frame, and his willingness to highlight its plasticity. In one of Letter’s most celebrated scenes, wide-eyed romantic Joan Fontaine and dapper, womanizing pianist Louis Jourdan have dinner in a fake train compartment, with a hand-drawn landscape rolling past their window, controlled by a man furiously pedaling in another booth. The constructed nature of this reality, as well as the lovers’ charming willingness to play along with it, is both sweet and ominous — a flash of amorous indulgence that nevertheless hints at the fact that their affair will not last. For all that, however, the source of Letter From an Unknown Woman’s power remains Joan Fontaine’s heartbreakingly restrained, almost gentle turn as a woman who anonymously sacrifices herself for the callous, distracted man that she loves.

What Murnau and Ophüls did with movement, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray tried to do with explosive color schemes, surreal shadows, and canted angles. Ray liked to build up to his characters’ emotional arias; when I recall his films, I often think of big gestures and bursts of feelings: James Dean’s soulful delinquent yelling, “You’re tearing me apart!” to his parents in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), or James Mason’s once-docile family patriarch in Bigger Than Life (1956), deep in the throes of chemically induced psychosis, yelling, “God was wrong!” in reaction to the tale of God sparing Abraham from killing his own son. Sirk, in contrast, creates entire unreal atmospheres of Technicolor passion; his films start at a heightened level of madness and sustain it, so that even the autumn leaves outside Jane Wyman’s window in All That Heaven Allows (1955), a delirious romance between a nobly suffering widow and a hunky, idealistic gardener (played by Rock Hudson), gain an otherworldly pallor.

But then what to make of one of the most underseen offerings in this slate, Ida Lupino’s Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), the tale of a tennis prodigy (Sally Forrest) and her ambitious mother (played by Claire Trevor with an unlikely mixture of vulnerability and scheming single-mindedness). Mom’s not happy at home — as evidenced by her cool rejection of her mild-mannered husband’s advances — and puts all her passion into getting her daughter ahead on the tennis circuit. But the girl wants to settle down eventually; her desire for a championship is momentary. Mom somehow both knows this fact and ignores it, making her own quest for self-actualization also an act of self-destruction. It could be the plot of a Sirk movie, but Lupino — an underrated master of pacing and detail — keeps things moving at a steady clip, and avoids too much formal adornment. (“Hard, fast, and beautiful” could easily describe the film’s style as well.) But she also knows when to insert a poetic touch: The final scene, with Mom sitting by herself in a darkened stadium, listening to the imaginary plonk-plonk of a nonexistent tennis match, is one of the most expressive moments in this entire series.

The regimented emotional narratives of Hollywood — dictated by studios and producers who demanded stories that stuck to familiar genre satisfactions, and further circumscribed by a production code that ensured appropriate punishment for characters who stepped out of line (like, say, a wife who wasn’t sufficiently affectionate toward her husband) — often bred directors who used form and symbolism to circumvent their films’ predictability. Outside of the U.S., however, cinematic technique often mitigated unimaginably dark storylines.

Mikhail Kalatozov’s war classic The Cranes Are Flying (1957) was filmed under circumstances that were even more oppressive than Hollywood — Soviet censors made America’s Hays Office look like Sodom and Gomorrah — but it also evinces a frankness about desire and betrayal. Boris (Aleksey Batalov) and Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) are in love, but Boris’s cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), also desires Veronika. When the Soviets invade, Boris signs up to go to war, against Veronika’s protestations. With him gone, Mark, who has stayed behind, rapes Veronika and forces her to marry him. The young woman, now seen by those around her as a deceitful sinner who abandoned her lover while he was at the front, still holds out hope that Boris will return — even though we know that he’s been killed in action. It’s a brutal tale that could have been intolerable, but Kalatozov’s freewheeling camerawork, with its almost unhinged movements and impossibly wide-angle lenses, creates an almost dreamlike atmosphere. It’s as if the very screen itself were at the mercy of the characters’ feelings — swaying and shaking with each shout, each heaved breath, each impassioned lunge.

Tales of women scorned thanks to society’s expectations can also be found in Egyptian director Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958) and Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976), two films set among the marginalized poor. Chahine’s work takes place in a massive railway station and follows a number of characters, in particular a group of women who sell drinks illegally to passengers. They’re lusted after by several of the other denizens, including an unstable newspaper boy whose sexual obsession with one of them seems at first somewhat harmless, but grows to become murderous. In Insiang, a young woman living in a Filipino slum finds herself victimized by her unstable mother’s young boyfriend — and winds up giving in to his advances, despite his brutality toward her. If The Cranes Are Flying was unhinged and dreamlike, Cairo Station is diffuse and frantic, while Insiang is somber, lyrical. All three films, however, are driven by a sense of emotional entrapment. They show us the lives of women forced to cede to others’ demands, even as they attract the scorn of the society around them. The films’ stylizations contrast with — and thus highlight — the female characters’ lack of agency.

The series’ more recent titles, on the other hand, feature a number of films that keep their emotions in check. Can Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) even be called a melodrama? It’s a movie in which the great bursts of feeling we’re hoping for from the characters never really arrive: Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung dance and stare and mope and pine, without ever quite consummating their passion. That’s not to say it’s not a moving film; on the contrary, it’s shattering. But the effect is created by a strange combination of the actors’ subtly soulful performances and Wong’s careful mise-en-scène, aided by Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin’s colorful cinematography. The film expresses the things the characters can’t; somewhere in the space between content and form, our hearts are broken into a million pieces.

Meanwhile, Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven (2002), about a suburban 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore) who begins to fall for an African American man (Dennis Haysbert) while also discovering that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay, is certainly filled with bursts of feeling, but so much of it is done in quotes. By studiously replicating the mood and look of a Douglas Sirk film and other 1950s melodramas, Haynes creates a picture whose emotional honesty is at times undercut by its referentiality. Can a film be both totally sincere and totally ironic? Far From Heaven is a fascinating attempt to explore that question.

What about the simpler, more direct approach to emotions? To some extent, that is represented here by romances like Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), two tales of thwarted love and adultery distinguished by their quiet, unfussy styles. Interestingly, both films are haunted by the shadow of that most stoic of American film genres, the western — Brokeback because it’s about closeted gay cowboys Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, and Bridges because of the presence of Eastwood himself in the role (his most vulnerable ever) of a drifting photographer who falls for Meryl Streep’s frustrated Italian American housewife. The specter of Western fortitude — bound up with all sorts of outdated notions about what makes “a real man” — itself provides a certain ironic undercurrent to these films. (Would Brokeback have been so moving were it about plumbers, or insurance salesmen?)

One film that splits the difference between style and sincerity: Staney Kwan’s majestic Rouge (1987), about a courtesan (Anita Mui) in 1930s Hong Kong who makes a suicide pact with her wealthy playboy lover (Leslie Cheung), then returns as a ghost in the present day — searching for her beloved, who has failed to keep up his end of the bargain. For all its time-hopping and its supernatural elements, Rouge is a tearjerker par excellence. Kwan is both a phenomenal sensualist — few directors move the camera with more purpose or grace — and an unabashed, yes, sentimentalist. He is never afraid to go for the emotional jugular, and he’s really good at it. Every viewing of Rouge leaves me a wreck.

I’m not going to lie: Among this series’ more recent offerings, I would have loved to have seen more of the populist “weepies” often held at a remove by the critical establishment. It’d even be a fun exercise to speculate on what might be included in future installments. Beaches? Steel Magnolias? Lorenzo’s Oil? Stepmom? The Shawshank Redemption? These films are at this point decades old, but they still don’t get enough respect. And the nature of melodrama mandates that such a canon be refreshed and updated on a regular basis, with the addition of more and more previously dismissed titles. But maybe that’s another conversation, for another day. In the meantime, “Emotion Pictures” makes for a beautiful, noble starting point.

‘Emotion Pictures: International Melodrama’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
December 13–January 7