The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama
U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet
“Do you cry often, Eugenia?”
“There’s so little to do here. It helps pass the time.”
Given his role in pioneering melodrama as a literary genre, it’s amazing how rarely Honoré de Balzac has been adapted for the screen. Cinemas are crying out for a film of Cousin Bette or A Harlot High and Low. (And, no, Des McAnuff’s 1997 travesty of Cousin Bette does not count!) The neglect is especially striking in the author’s native France. Just imagine Gérard Depardieu as the flamboyant master criminal Vautrin or Alain Delon as the spoiled and dissolute Lucien de Rubempré or Jeanne Moreau as the vengeful and venomous Bette. Balzac’s plots and characters are so much the stuff of movies that reading one of his novels may come eerily close to running a movie in your head. Do film directors tend to avoid Balzac, because they know they can’t compete? That being said, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis – possibly the all-time French masterwork – plays uncannily like a Balzac novel, but one that was created directly for the screen.
In contrast to most of his work, Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet has enjoyed a lively history of screen adaptations. This tale of a miser’s daughter and her unrequited love for her wastrel cousin was adapted by Rex Ingram as The Conquering Power in 1921 – a vehicle for his wife, Alice Terry, and his latest male protégé Rudolph Valentino. In Italy in 1946, a ‘calligraphic’ version by Mario Soldati launched the young Alida Valli on her international career. Eugenia Grandet – the one in question here – was made by Emilio Gómez Muriel in 1953. Despite a lavish dedication to el gran autor Honorato de Balzac, it moves the action from France in the 19th century to a small town in Mexico in the present day. If the move works (and perhaps it shouldn’t) that may be because the lifestyle and social structures depicted by the novel seem alarmingly unchanged.
Unlike most Mexican films of the Golden Age, Eugenia Grandet does not star a resplendent diva along the lines of Dolores del Río, María Félix or Libertad Lamarque. The popular Marga López – who plays the harried and lovelorn young spinster – comes across (incredibly) as more of an actress than a star. Attractive but not particularly striking, López gives a performance that is subtle, nuanced and low-key (at any rate, by Mexican standards). The film, too, is stylistically less flamboyant than one by Emilio Fernández or Roberto Gavaldón. Its director, Gómez Muriel, was a sort of Mexican counterpart to George Cukor – a tasteful and self-effacing craftsman who excelled at directing ladies. Even when directing María Félix as a swashbuckling transvestite swords-woman (in La monja alférez/Sister Lieutenant in 1944) or as a ruthless bed-hopping film star (in La estrella vacía/The Empty Star in 1958) his mise-en-scène is disarmingly tasteful and restrained.
Eugenia Grandet is a film of small but disquieting moments, of stray details caught with cool precision by the camera’s eye. As it opens, an elegant black car drives hurriedly out through the gates of an imposing mansion; a gunshot rings out somewhere inside the house. All we see – when we venture inside for the next shot – is a dead hand stretched out on the floor, behind a desk. A few scenes later, the rich young playboy Carlos (played by the adorably named Ramón Gay) arrives at his uncle’s house in a tiny provincial town. He learns that his wealthy father has shot himself, because he was facing financial ruin.
As it happens, the day of his arrival is also the 21st birthday of his cousin Eugenia. Her rich but miserly father (Julio Villareal) ekes out a single bottle of cider among twenty guests, and frets at the extravagant overuse of electric lights. Some cousins have bought Eugenia a radio; they persuade her loving papa to risk a higher-than-normal electricity bill by plugging it in. Carlos arrives just in time to give the young lady her first real dance. (He does not yet know, you see, that his father is dead!) As the pair dance closer and closer – and father watches with mounting distaste – the wall socket the radio is plugged into bursts into flame. The next morning, old Grandet refuses to buy food for the young man’s breakfast. His long-suffering wife (Andrea Palma) sends the maid out to pawn one of her rings.
The film’s obvious Hollywood parallel is William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), based on the Henry James novella Washington Square. Another classic tale of a repressed spinster, a domineering father and a heartless but handsome young stud. Of course, Eugenia Grandet cannot hope to rival the visual richness of Wyler’s film. Yet its exploration of character and relationships is more subtle and, perhaps, more convincing. Montgomery Clift in The Heiress is all too obviously a fortune hunter; his romance with Olivia de Havilland is clearly bad news from the start. But the young man in Eugenia Grandet is too spineless and inert to be a schemer. Had he been allowed to marry Eugenia early on, their lives might have been no more disastrous than any others in the film. But when his uncle protests and sends Carlos to work in Brazil – the better to snaffle what’s left of the dead man’s fortune – the boy forgets his cousin because writing letters is simply too much trouble.
Gómez Muriel tells their story, not in thunderous operatic tableaux, but in fleeting close-ups. The hands of the lovers, clasped tenderly as they lie together on the grass. Eugenia’s hands alone, slowly tearing up the last of her letters to be returned unanswered. Grandet on his deathbed, catching a glimpse of the priest’s gold crucifix as he administers the last rites. The icon fills the camera, as the old man gasps out “Oro!” (“Gold!”) and falls back dead. Ten years later, a close-up of Eugenia as she waits at the airport for Carlos to return. Having inherited her father’s fortune, she has transformed herself into a woman of wealth and fashion (complete with a chic but hideous white snood). Her clothes are expensive but her face is chalky pale, her eyes lifeless and drained of all feeling. As she explains earlier on: “The tears that hurt most are the ones you keep inside.”
Eugenia Grandet keeps a lot inside, in a way that Mexican movies – and, to tell the truth, Balzac novels – do not normally do. It has something of the Spartan splendour of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and improves immeasurably with each successive viewing. A Mexican film for those who don’t even like Mexican films? Perhaps. But also unmissable for those who do.