Black Narcissus (dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947) – Mere days before starting a seminar in film and melodrama, I’ll make the tentative claim that this film constitutes an example of the melodramatic mode. What makes it particularly exemplary is its narrative content as a counterpoint to melodrama. By revolving around nuns working and living in a majestic domicile in the Himalayas, the highly terrestrial nature of the formal modes employed in the film stands out all the more. The film doesn’t present itself as “transcendental,” the mode or style that Paul Schrader discusses in his dated but seminal work. This story is about romance and struggle with the daily routine. It doesn’t wrestle with the metaphysical but with the physical. It doesn’t emphasize the physical or terrestrial in juxtaposition with the metaphysical or transcendent, as many films do (see anything from Terrence Malick). This has the flavor of Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder who would follow him. The garb in which the nuns are dressed, by their color and textural rigidity, mark the women not only as nuns but as suppressed individuals. Their faces stand out through the lighting and coloration as desperate to emerge from the cages of their uniforms. When one of the sisters does emerge, she looks like a character from The Red Shoes, defined by a deep, Technicolor red that somehow embodies all that is carnal and lavish. Nothing could clash more with the bland Catholic outfits that blend in with the whitewashed walls of the place and simultaneously clash with the terrestrial splendor outside. The constantly blowing wind, impeding upon the soundtrack and the mise-en-scene, serves as a perpetual reminder that these women are out of their element, being invaded by the earthly. This earthly invasion is best manifest in the single white male (whoops) presence in the film, a man who rarely wears a shirt, lets his beard grow, surrounds himself with animals, and speaks the native language. He is everything the women are not. He is wild and in touch with the third-world danger and beauty surrounding the place. He’s also the fix-it man who takes care of the menial problems while the sisters manage spiritual and educational (read: “higher”) matters. The film’s tone empathizes with the man but sympathizes with the Sister Superior. The film wants us to want her to leave her calling and be with him. The melodramatic mode keeps this desire in tension with the narrative constraints of the film, rendering the sister heroic and sacrificial, faithful above all to what heaven allows. And, related to the above, the fact that the narrative concerns faithful adherents to a religious tradition plays directly into the hand of melodrama. Peter Brooks’ important work on the mode notes that melodrama is distinctly post-sacred, which Black Narcissus embodies (literally) in the physicality of the nuns, whose bodies are marked by their devotion to a higher order from which they would like to come down. The tension that results is the stuff of melodrama, and the lack of discharge to relieve the constantly swelling affect encourages a bodily response on the part of the viewer consistent with that described by Linda Williams in her essay “Body Genres.”
Stealing Beauty (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1996) – Probably the most disappointing one from Bertolucci. The narrative is the search for self-discovery, which is consonant with the loss of inhibitions and, weirdly, the quest to find the father. Consequently, there are a few different father figures, all of whom display a marked eroticism toward young Lucy. It’s all so overt that one wonders what it’s getting at. It’s not hard to take a gander, of course, but there’s got to be more to it than basic Freud stuff. The best visual element has to be the carved statues scattered throughout the landscape outlying the home. They’re composed of wood but stained by the earth, a unique hue of reddish-brown that cuts through the largely-green hills of Tuscany. Like the woodenness of the statues, the human characters are stuck in their place, imprisoned though they be beautiful. Like the soiled color of the statues, the humans are marked by their environment. The earth-tones suggest skin tones, and the photography of the film highlights the similarity between these chiseled figures, always looking out and always frozen, and the human figures that play around and between them. And “play” they do. The film is very much about playing and “living” rather than anything resembling work. It’s a utopian setting, located in a quintessentially utopian space. These are privileged folks, and although Bertolucci’s politics would seem to condemn privilege, he appears to envision an ideal that allows for a life of carefree excess.