Guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns from sunny Spain to bring us another Mexican melodrama from the golden age —
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
D is for La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess)
Let us close our eyes and live this dream.
– Arturo de Córdova to María Félix
In Hollywood after World War II, a new genre called film noir brought the look of German Expressionism and Gothic horror to a contemporary urban world of morally compromised heroes and ruthless, sexually voracious femmes fatales. It did not take long for film noir to travel to Mexico, and the man who made it happen was Roberto Gavaldón. One of two great auteurs to emerge in Mexico in the 40s, Gavaldón is barely remembered today – unlike his arch-rival Emilio (Bugambilia) Fernandez.
The two directors and their films could not have been more different. Fernandez was the naïf rural poet of Mexican cinema – evoking a world of flyblown pueblos, a landscape of cactuses and clouds, and Dolores del Río looking beautiful and stalwart in a native shawl. Gavaldón, in contrast, was an urban sophisticate with a flair for high-style decadence. His films – which emulated, and often transcended, Hollywood and European models – showed impossibly glamorous people behaving disgracefully in ineffably chic interiors. Made in 1947, La diosa arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess) remains the ne plus ultra.
Both hero and heroine in this film are utterly gorgeous and wholly depraved. Indeed, their occasional twinges of conscience invariably make things worse and not better. The dashing matinee idol Arturo de Córdova (back in Mexico after an abortive Hollywood career, whose highlight was Frenchman’s Creek with Joan Fontaine) plays a wealthy industrial chemist with a devoted but ailing wife. The implication is that she’s too ill to have sex, which means the poor guy is perpetually horny. That is the only possible explanation for much of what follows.
As the film opens, we learn that he hides a guilty passion for none other than Mexico’s premiere sex symbol, María Félix – who here sports an eye-popping wardrobe of Surrealist-inspired gowns, in the manner of Elsa Schiaparelli. (One skin-tight black silk sheath, with its skirt billowing around the ankles, makes her look like a beached mermaid.) She’s a part-time whore and also – gasp! – a nude model who inspires a faux Greek mythological statue called ‘The Kneeling Goddess’. No sooner has Arturo split with María, to devote himself to caring for his wife, than he buys this life-size replica of her to decorate their garden at home!
The entire film, as this particular plot twist suggests, is an essay in fetishised and narcissistic passion. Never, outside of a Jean Cocteau movie, have I seen a director so obsessed with mirrors and reflections. When María crashes the couple’s anniversary party – egging her lover on, silently, to poison his sick wife – a vast looking glass reflects the entire scene. Once the poor woman dies, María luxuriates in front of her mirror, reflecting that Arturo has committed murder for her sake, so this must be true love at last! Later, when it all goes sour, a mirror reflects the lavishly set table where María now dines alone.
Signs, also, play a big part in Gavaldón’s visual world. Arturo languishes in his office, lusting helplessly after María. His window looks out on a giant perfume ad – which spells out the word DESEO in huge capital letters. That’s Spanish for ‘desire’ as in The Law of… which this film could just as easily be called. When María runs away, Arturo tracks her down in Panama – singing in what looks suspiciously like a gay nightclub. The male clients are in couples. In each, a well-dressed businessman squires a hunky young sailor out of a Jean-Paul Gaultier ad. María croons (slightly off-key) a torch song composed by her real-life husband at the time, Agustín Lara. Another sign looms over her, in blazing neon: Welcome to Panama’s Paradise.
This whole nightclub episode builds to a fetishist frenzy that’s worthy of Josef von Sternberg. María’s sleazy manager and co-star (Fortunio Bonanova) scrawls a message in lipstick on her dressing room mirror (Morocco). It’s New Year’s Eve, and the air shimmers with balloons and paper streamers (Dishonored). He wears a white tuxedo (Blonde Venus) and she sports a white silk gown decorated with fringe (The Devil Is a Woman). María Félix, to be fair, is far more Maria Montez than Marlene Dietrich – but she throws herself into the melodramatic absurdities with a gusto that many a more gifted actress might envy.
The guilty lovers return to Mexico City, marry and settle down to a life of blackmail and mutual torment. It doesn’t help that Arturo promptly becomes obsessed with his dead wife, whose portrait on the wall dominates the latter half of the film, much as María’s statue did the former. At this point, La diosa arrodillada becomes a sort of weird Rebecca-in-reverse – as if Laurence Olivier had murdered the mousy Joan Fontaine character, so he could marry the glamorously evil Rebecca instead! There are a few twists still to come…but it ends with María Félix in a narcissistic tableau, contemplating her own sublime marble image.
Frankly, if you look like her, why look at anyone else?