I had a melodramatic couple of days at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. Starting with Michael Rowe’s Canadian/Australian drama Early Winter, through Simon Stone’s The Daughter and concluding with a retrospective screening of Mikio Naruse’s classic Floating Clouds, my weekend was dominated by the infidelities and dark secrets that define the much-maligned genre of melodrama. These three films each took a distinctly different approach to similar subject material, in the process revealing how powerfully creative decisions influence the audience’s reaction to a piece of cinema.
Let’s start at the beginning, with Early Winter. The label of melodrama undeniably sits uncomfortably with Rowe’s English language debut; one associates melodrama with heightened emotion, yelling matches and florid, soap-operatic twists. There’s certainly some of the latter two in Early Winter, the tale of a Canadian couple in crisis, but the film’s carefully-controlled, distanced aesthetic minimises the strength of the emotion on display. As in his 2010 breakthrough, Leap Year, Rowe keeps his camera still for the entirely of the film, allowing each scene to play out uninterrupted. Combined with Canada’s wintry setting, a muted colour palette and the avoidance of extra-diegetic music, the net effect is far chillier than one would expect from a typical melodrama.
But make no mistake, Early Winter is a melodrama to its marrow. While the screenplay is tight-fisted when it comes to exposition, gradually unfolding the specific traumas destabilising the marriage of Maya (Suzanne Clément) and David (Paul Doucet), these details are as florid as the most colourful melodrama: alcoholism, car accidents, infidelity (and, inevitably, strained finances). But the duller aesthetic contributes to a duller experience – for better or for worse. I confess my preference is for the more overt approach to melodrama – give me Sirk’s bold flourishes over a static camera any day – but Rowe’s restrained approach allows the audience to adopt an intellectual, detached approach to the proceedings. If nothing else, it allows you to analyse the fractures in the central relationship more objectively, meaning that Early Winter operates almost like a procedural.
Simon Stone might have benefited from such restraint. The actor-turned-director’s first feature (after helming one of the stronger shorts that made up The Turning, “Reunion”), The Daughter, takes a significantly more subjective approach to a storyline similarly dominated by dormant family secrets. Formally, it’s undeniably impressive. Cinematographer Andrew Commis – from The Rocket and The Slap – shoots the dense Australian bush in a way that simultaneously highlights its verdant beauty while accentuating its deep shadows.
A formidable cast – featuring Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto, Sam Neill, Ewen Leslie and Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider – deliver the kind of performances we’ve come to expect from respectable Australian cinema, pitched somewhere in between naturalistic and theatrical. But the subjectivity comes from its editing and sound design which, in contrast to Early Winter, draw us in close to the characters’ experience. Conversations are stitched together from cuts that prioritise emotion over continuity; for example, we observe someone’s remorseful reaction to an aborted conversation while the audio of the conversation continues. When a wronged father marches to a confrontation, the camera follows close behind while the music is drowned out by his angry breathing.
Throughout The Daughter’s first two acts, this works pretty well. The cross-cutting – combined with the logging town setting – suggested a more conventional take on Fell, one of 2014’s stronger Australian films. Fell allowed its familiar tale of vengeance and forgiveness to drift off into poetry, at once earthy and ethereal; Stone instead insists upon chronicling the consequences of an unveiled secret in intimate, obvious detail. The abundant potential of the setting – a town in decline, a history of criminality, class conflict and, again, alcoholism – is stripped away in favour of lots of scenes of angry yelling and loud crying. It’s not that crying is a problem in of itself – this is a melodrama, after all – but that the subjective perspective erases the screenplay’s complexities in favour of raw – and comparatively uninteresting – emotion.
The perfect melodrama, I’d argue, exists somewhere between these two poles: at the midpoint between Rowe’s distance and Stone’s proximity. And Floating Clouds is pretty much a perfect melodrama.
Naruse’s 1955 masterpiece follows the ill-fated romance of Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) and Tomioka (Masayuki Mori). After falling in love while stationed in French Indo-China, the relationship between the two curdles – Tomioka refuses to divorce his wife, Yukiko takes up with an American G.I. – but their bond endures. The narrative is populated with the lurid twists of fate traditionally associated with melodrama – financial ruin, adultery and even murder – but Naruse’s careful approach is more sympathetic than Rowe’s and more detached than Stone’s, and an order of magnitude more effective than either of them. Despite the despicable deeds of his characters, we continue to understand and sympathise with them (even if Naruse’s proto-feminist slant tends to align us more closely with Yukiko’s plight than Tomioka’s).
Like Rowe, Naruse often relies on a static camera, but where Early Winter uses close-ups incredibly sparingly, Floating Cloud’s camera is relentlessly drawn towards its characters as scenes progress, cutting closer and closer with each line. Unlike The Daughter, however, Naruse avoids over-emphasising the emotion; note that his characters often cry with their faces turned from the camera, and the film’s most dramatic moment – that aforementioned murder – occurs entirely off-screen.
This approach also allows Floating Clouds to operate far more effectively as a political work than The Daughter could ever hope to. The latter film suggest an interest in class conflict and the decline of the Australian working class, but these themes are subjugated to serve personal conflicts in the last act, erasing much of the first half’s nuance. The emotions overwhelm the film’s intellectual component. Floating Clouds, however, carefully positions Yukiko and Tomioka’s troubled romance as emblematic of a post-war Japan struggling to piece itself together amidst the wreckage of war and America’s brief occupation (accentuated most obviously by Yukiko’s romance with an American soldier, but also the prominence of American brands and products in her apartment).
That said, to put Early Winter and The Daughter up against a work by the likes of Naruse is only ever going to amount to an unfavourable comparison. These Australian films might not be on the level of Floating Clouds, but they’re good films nonetheless, and potent exemplars of the diverse approaches afforded within the genre of melodrama.