Category: Melodrama

Reading Blue Eyes (Blå ögon, Sweden 2014)

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.

Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.

(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)

The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down

Sirk #4: All I Desire (US 1953)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Despite access to Technicolor for appropriate genre films, Douglas Sirk found that he was back to Black & White for this costume melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck. Presumably Babs was not considered a big enough draw to justify the extra production expense of colour, though Sirk certainly wanted it. This is a major indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Stanwyck was for me the leading actress of her generation, matched only by Bette Davis. Ten years earlier, some reports placed her as the best-paid woman in America. ‘Too old’ at 45, Stanwyck, as the great trouper she was, continued to work through the mid 1950s featuring in several interesting films before moving over to TV.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

All I Desire is an adaptation of the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink. Stanwyck plays Naomi Murdoch, a woman at the start of the 20th century who has left her family and ‘run away’ to become an actress. Now she is stuck in a touring vaudeville troupe but her family believe that she has become a big star, touring Europe. She has kept up the charade. When her younger daughter Lily writes to her with the news that she is to appear as the lead in her school graduation play, Naomi decides to risk going home to meet the family again.

Brink was a writer of what we might now think of as Young Adult novels and the narrative of Stopover suggests a focus on the mother-daughter relationship. In Sirk’s hands this becomes a family melodrama, but one hampered by the ‘happy ending’ imposed by producer Ross Hunter as per Universal’s policy. Sirk was disappointed that the title was changed since he thought Stopover signalled a different kind of story. In his conversations with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) he says that Stanwyck’s character is in some ways a “‘pre-study’ of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life“. Stanwyck (admired by Sirk and many of Hollywood’s other leading directors) “had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her”.

Naomi arrives back in the small town of Riverdale, Wisconsin and finds a complacent middle-class family. Her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) is the high school principal and her three children seem to live separate lives. The youngest, Ted, still has the innocence of youth and loves his mother unconditionally, the eldest, Joyce, blames her mother for her father’s unhappiness and treats her coldly and Lily is all ego.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter's boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter’s boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Sirk is highly skilled in the way he manages his resources and marshals Universal’s crew to produce something always worth watching. The film is full of moments when the possibilities of the full-blown melodramas towards which he is heading can be glimpsed. The plot includes the darker side of Naomi’s sudden departure ten years earlier in the shape of the local gunshop owner played by Lyle Bettger whose re-appearance certainly disturbs the Stanwyck character. Sirk’s mise en scène and the camerawork by Carl Guthrie are heavily imbued with film noir flourishes which spread through the family scenes as well as those referring back to Naomi’s past. Sirk’s comment to Halliday was ” . . . a woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love – and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit, middle-class family”. I’m not sure these strong words are merited for the family we see in the film, but the mise en scène and camerawork do suggest what Sirk was thinking. If he’d got his own way Stopover might have become a great film. As it is we can just enjoy the craftmanship of Sirk and Stanwyck and look forward to There’s Always Tomorrow a few years later.

Sirk #2: The Tarnished Angels (US 1957)

TarnishedAngelsposter

This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylons. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot concerns Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are.  Setting what a melodrama in this milieu is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamps throwing light upwards.

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and advertising sponsor Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamp throwing light upwards behind Middleton. The costume design emphasise the effect by dressing Malone in black and white. Similarly, in the outdoor flying scenes, the planes tend to be ‘white’ or ‘black’.

I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film was and how much it resembled classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many others of his film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.

The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has 'no way out' in the noir melodrama

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has ‘no way out’ in the noir melodrama

But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.

The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.

¡Viva! 22 #3: L’adopció (Spain-Lithuania 2015)

Natalia (Nora Navas) and Dani (Frances Garrido)

Natalia (Nora Navas) and Dani (Frances Garrido)

This is a very accomplished film that I found disturbing to watch, especially since the director and co-writer was present – and the story was inspired by her own experiences. Daniela Féjerman answered questions after the screening (the UK première) when around half the audience stayed on and raised a wide range of questions. The film carries a strong emotional punch and the questioners were generally very supportive.

The ‘adoption’ of the title is set in motion by a Spanish couple, Natalia (Nora Navas) and Daniel (Francesc Garrido), who arrive in an unnamed East European country where they are met by an intermediary who they have paid to help them adopt a child under 3 years-old. The process they must go through is bureaucratic and extremely stressful – not helped by the fact that it is Christmas (with offices closed and family rituals) and very cold. It soon transpires that they need the intermediary for more than just interpreter duties – is she to be trusted? At the beginning of the narrative Natalia and Dani appear to have a strong loving relationship, but as the adoption process begins to hit all kinds of snags and they are faced with extremely difficult decisions, the two react in different ways and their relationship begins to suffer. In an interview with Cineuropa, Féjerman describes the film as “like a Christmas tale told by Kafka” – which seems a very good description of the narrative as well as of the real problems of producing the film.

The production had three Spanish companies, two Lithuanian companies and support from tvE (the Spanish public service broadcaster) and took several years to put together. It was a multiple language film – the Spanish language dialogue sections being shot twice with the second version in Catalan. L’adopció is the Catalan title. The film is also known by the international English title Awaiting. The Castilian Spanish title is La adopción. This is one of the increasing number of European films in which people from different European countries must speak English in order to negotiate bureaucracies. And this in turn creates divisions since the ability to speak a second (or usually third) language denotes either a good education or opportunities to travel and/or work abroad. The film uses Spanish/Catalan, English, Lithuanian, Russian and Italian. The local actors are mainly very experienced Lithuanian theatre actors (everything was shot in Lithuania). The English dialogue seemed to me very impressive and I was slightly surprised that though she introduced herself in English, Daniela Féjerman (herself Argentinian) answered questions via an interpreter. It says much for Ms Féjerman’s directorial skill that she accomplished so much on a multilingual shoot.

I said at the beginning of this post that I found the film disturbing. By this I mean that the film provokes strong audience responses which will be different for each audience member. I could certainly identify with the Spanish couple and I did indeed think about how I would react faced with the same circumstances and difficult decisions I was reminded of similar stresses on my travels, but associated with less important decisions. The two central performances are excellent. It took me some time to realise that Nora Navas had appeared in a previous ¡Viva! festival screening, Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her, Spain 2013). She was excellent in that role as well. I liked Natalia whereas I gradually began to turn against her husband. The central issue is international adoption as a practice. Personally, I find the whole idea problematic, but I appreciate that for some couples it becomes their only viable option for a child. In this case there is also the issue of making out that a whole country is corrupt – from the baggage-handlers at the airport, through civil servants and the medical profession to relatives who might view children as ‘for sale’ to people from Western Europe with money to spend. The latter point works both ways – why shouldn’t they earn extra money while seeing the child have a ‘better’ future in the West? In this case, Daniela Féjerman told us that the story was based on her own experiences adopting a child from Ukraine and that the circumstances in her film are commonplace – or so the Spanish Embassy told her. I’m not sure what my reaction was to that announcement. She also said that the Lithuanian production partners were happy with the script. The country isn’t named and in fact doesn’t allow international adoption. The titles do, however, announce the co-production.

One of the more expressive shots during the adoption process – the couple are watching a doctor with a child through a window.

One of the more expressive shots during the adoption process – the couple are watching a doctor with a child through a window.

But this is a fiction film narrative and much depends on how we might classify the film. On the whole, the film presents itself as a social drama, focusing on the adoption process and what it means for the participants. There are moments of wry humour and moments of heightened emotion about the couple’s relationship such as when they dance to a romantic Italian song in a Vilnius bar. The bar has Murphy’s stout on tap, but does it have Italian songs on a jukebox? Mostly, however, the approach is social realism with rather muted and cold cinematography making some kind of  ironic comment about the emotional stress for the couple during the Christmas period. It’s small things like this which made me think about melodrama. In the Cineuropa review Féjerman tells us:

“it was essential to maintain a certain tone: I had to prevent it from becoming melodramatic, which I was tempted towards, and it’s something that could easily have happened. I had such a brutal vision of the experience that I just couldn’t make a movie with violins playing in the background, because there were certainly none to be heard there.”

I suspect that I don’t have the same ideas about melodrama as this director. I understand what she is saying, but during the film she includes scenes and lines of dialogue which hint at typical relationships within a family. We never find out what Natalia and Dani do for a living, but we do know that Natalia has a father who is a high status and wealthy doctor and that Dani is perhaps affected by this. We also wonder what has happened in the couple’s attempts to conceive. I can see  that it is difficult to decide how much back story to give to the central characters, but the narrative does offer the potential of two intertwined stories, one about the adoption and one about the marriage. This could be a melodrama with Natalia as its centre without resorting to the violins that the director worries about. The film actually has a carefully worked score and includes children’s songs as well as the Italian song described above.

L’adopció is certainly a film to talk about and others will feel differently about the issue of international adoption and about melodrama. As far as I am aware the film has only been released in Spain (in both Catalan and Castilian) and up till now only in Spanish festivals. It deserves a wider audience and we should thank ¡Viva! for bringing it to the UK. L’adopció plays again at ¡Viva! on Thursday April 21 at 18.20.

International trailer (with English subs):