Hola! David Melville Wingrove’s A-Z of Mexican melodrama reaches its midpoint.
The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
M is for María Félix as La mujer de todos (Every Man’s Woman) and Camelia
If you had to sum up the whole of melodrama in one character, it could only be The Lady of the Camellias – the tubercular high-class hooker who dies for love. Concocted by Alexandre Dumas fils from a real-life source, her story is an iconic mishmash of love and money, ecstasy and suffering, sex and death. She has been played famously on screen by Greta Garbo, Alla Nazimova and Isabelle Huppert. On stage by Sarah Bernhardt, Edwige Feuillère and Isabelle Adjani. As an opera (Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata) by Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiu and any other diva worthy of the name.
Only fitting, in that case, that María Félix – the supreme melodramatic star – should play her not once but twice. Her darkly imperious eyes and her exquisitely anguished face are enough, in themselves, to tell us what this story is about (Acting is, of course, optional.) Not that either of her films is a literal, word-for-word transcription. Directed by Julio Bracho in 1946, La mujer de todos (Every Man’s Woman) is less an adaptation than a rhapsody on themes by Dumas. Camelia, directed by Roberto Gavaldón in 1953, is a proto post-modern update that anticipates the Life as Theatre parables of Carlos Saura. While they are recognisably the work of bold and independent auteurs, María Félix reigns supreme over both.
La mujer de todos is set in Madrid and provincial Mexico in 1919. With its long, sinuous tracking shots and its unerring sense of period, the film makes us wonder if Julio Bracho was Latin America’s answer to Max Ophüls. One scene at a funfair plays like Letter from an Unknown Woman with a mariachi band thrown in. Reflected from scene to scene in a series of full-length mirrors, María confronts herself and her romantic woes with all the aplomb of Danielle Darrieux as Madame de…
She makes her entrance at a lavish masked ball, thrown by her married lover (Alberto Galán) to celebrate his departure from Spain for the New World. A room full of cast-off gentlemen friends extol her as “the most beautiful woman in Europe – and the most expensive”. In her clinging black lace gown, her trailing black feather boa and her prodigiously oversized black picture hat – with a clutch of diamonds sparkling at her throat – María looks all that and then some. Here and throughout La mujer de todos, the match between the star and her wardrobe is as iconic as that of Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Silvana Mangano in Death in Venice or Marlene Dietrich in any of her films for Josef von Sternberg.
No sooner has she arrived at the party than a lovesick young man tries to shoot her in a fit of jealous rage. He misses, naturally. Later, as she calmly sips her champagne, he takes up his pistol again and shoots himself in the head. Looking mildly perturbed at this turn of events, María decides to accompany Galán home to Mexico – where her existence must, of course, be hidden from his icy blonde wife and her stuffily conservative family. He installs her in sinful splendour in some out-of-the-way mansion and all goes well…until she meets his illegitimate half-brother (Armando Calvo) and falls truly in love.
Like all the very best melodramas, La mujer de todos is at once a heavy-breathing wallow in doomed and frustrated passion and a stingingly accurate portrait of social and sexual hypocrisy. Calvo is himself the fruit of a secret liaison between Galán’s father and his long-concealed Spanish mistress. What’s more, the boy has no idea that he and Galán are actually brothers! Without ever once bothering to tell him the truth, Galán now plans to marry him off to a simpering young thing with the annoyingly symbolic name of Angélica. Mind you, he’s not above asking the younger man to accompany his mistress to the opera – lest she feel a wee bit desolate and neglected, alone in her deluxe shag pad.
The discovery of true love goes hand in hand, naturally, with a discovery of Mexico itself. Rejecting the false pseudo-European values of the city, María and her lover run away and go native. Sexual fulfilment, in this movie, means luxuriating in a straw hut by moonlight – swinging in a hammock and slurping greedily on a watermelon. We know things are serious when Calvo gives away a whole trunk of María’s chic Parisian wardrobe, acquired in her previous life of degradation and sin. (Not that it makes any real difference; she remains exquisitely gowned throughout the movie.) But once he proposes marriage, his big brother steps in to split them up.
The two rivals head inevitably towards a duel, as Bracho takes us on a bizarre detour to a scene in an all-male gymnasium – where half-naked but utterly gorgeous young men swing on hoops and flex their biceps in a long and luxuriant tracking shot. (Knowing nothing of Bracho’s personal life, I can say only that this may be the most homoerotic sequence in 40s cinema outside of Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks.) María can prevent a calamity only by renouncing the man she loves…so she boards a train and heads back to Europe, where new admirers (not to speak of new gowns, hats and jewels) doubtless await her.
If La mujer de todos is a triumph of melodrama in its classic form, Camelia is an altogether edgier and more complex affair. Its director, Roberto Gavaldón, veers closer to Douglas Sirk than to Ophüls. His film is at once a quasi-Brechtian deconstruction of melodrama’s most hallowed clichés, and a shamelessly tear-soaked celebration thereof. Updating the story to Mexico City in 50s, he casts María as one Camelia Peral – a ruthlessly ambitious actress who has slept her way, overtly and without apology, to the top. As one of her admirers comments early on, “that girl wears her beauty like an act of defiance.” She herself puts it in worldlier and less psychological terms. “Emeralds!” she snorts as she opens yet another present. “Some men have no imagination!”
As the film opens, María/Camelia is starring in a lavish stage production of The Lady of the Camellias. The play becomes an ironic mirror for her offstage life – as she falls in love with a poor but ambitious bullfighter (played by hunky Spanish star Jorge Mistral) who has no idea, naturally, that she is dying from a brain tumour. When they meet at a party at her house, María’s decadent society friends make him act out a scene for their amusement. He shocks them all by kissing her for real. As the film ends, María plays her big death scene onstage; meanwhile, she is actually dying in real life. She addresses her dying words, not to her callow leading man, but to Mistral as he stands weeping in the wings.
Flitting adroitly from Art to Life and back again, Gavaldón anticipates – by three decades – the consciously theatrical ‘art’ films of Carlos Saura (Dulces horas, Carmen, Blood Wedding and so on). But he also takes an obligatory side trip into the ‘real’ world of rural Mexico, as María briefly gives up her career to follow Jorge on the bullfight trail. Our interest may flag when she sits in the back of a bus, dutifully stitching up a rip in his torero outfit. Still, it perks up again when she cross-dresses (and very fetchingly, too) in a bullfighter’s suit of her own.
For any who remain unconvinced, La mujer de todos and Camelia should confirm María Félix as the supreme goddess of Latin American cinema – a Garbo in all but talent. Camelia even sneaks in a sly pastiche of Garbo’s famous ‘passing train’ finale from Anna Karenina. María runs down a railway station platform, searching for her lover; Gavaldón tracks his camera along the entire length of the train, revealing her exquisite face through window after window. MGM, of course, kept the camera tight on Garbo as it let the train pass by. We watch Garbo, covertly – as if she does not know we are watching. We watch María, overtly. She knows the world is there to watch her.