New York

“Our Marriage,” directed by Valeria Sarimento

"New Directors/New Films"

Valeria Sarimento’s Our Marriage (1984) is a film about a father who marries his daughter. But not really. Actually, it’s a scrutiny and demi-reenactment of filmic melodrama which works to expose how the genre’s soggy machinations perpetuate convention. But not really. Actually, it’s about a man who sells his daughter because he can’t afford her hospital bills. Well, not really. Actually, it’s about all this and more. Like the films of Douglas Sirk, Our Marriage partakes of a type of contextual mutation, a chameleonic procedure which varies greatly from spectator to spectator, from venue to venue.

Parody usually treads the thin line between the candor of commentary and the danger of being subsumed by its “original” model. At its most effective it can detonate a shift, a break in the usually seamless fabric of the stereotype. At its weakest it risks a kind of suicide by subtlety, carrying a critique so implicit, so relatively unavailable that it is absorbed by the very representational choreography that it works to expose. Most films clearly define themselves within one phylum or another, but a very few manage to gnaw out positions that alternate between alignment and disarray, between the skin of the stereotype and its usually rancid underpinnings. Such is Sarimento’s accomplishment: to elegantly picture the cartoons that comprise conventional social structures, foregrounding the ludicrous constitution of “normality” while at the same time creating a wickedly ridiculous comic opera out of “the days of our lives.”

The script, written by Sarimento and Raoul Ruiz, was adapted from a novel by Corin Tellado, a Spanish writer who has turned out an avalanche of romance novels. This wildly popular genre is dessert for Sarimento, who capitalizes on its hyperbolic insinuations and plays a kind of narcoleptic havoc with its flexing of the empathetic device. All this results in a woman’s rendition of the “woman’s film” genre. The cannily effective musical score was modeled after Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and works to hilariously magnify a spate of melodramatic moments; a stairway is scaled to the sound of a heightening crescendo, a facial expression is pocked by a dull thud. This musical counterpoint, along with the script’s ironic exaggerations (including its many nods to Sirk, and to Hitchcock’s Marnie), are the film’s most explicit parodic markings.

Playing amid the fields of soap opera’s circuitously incestuous terrain, Sarimento slowly gives the once-over to the clichés of the romance formula, picturing its goings-on in a studied style replete with sunsets, seaside strolls, and a honeymoon at the Madeira Sheraton. Her characters extemporize both in these postcard vistas and in mute residential interiors, literallrstill lifes“ which foreground the even stiller lives that inhabit them. When the maid traipses through a cemetery and comments, ”I’m among my friends here. In this neighborhood I know everyone:’ we get the message: death, memory, and their colleague, simulation, are the elements that comprise what we call life. They are, in effect, realer than real.

If we consider Roland Barthes’ comment that “the stereotype is . . . where the body is missing,” then Our Marriage’s reviewing of the melodramatic formula seems severely eloquent, as does Sarimento’s understanding that “transgression is always possible but doesn’t always take place. This is the space of the erotic.” It is also the space of the romantic depiction, whether reenacted in films, novels, television, or rock music. It is the absorbing space of desire, which unflinchingly postpones its pleasure, opting for the constancy of the fictive and for the effacement of the body and the pervasiveness of simulation. It is not coincidental, then, that there is a genre labeled “women’s films,” and also not surprising that the suppliers of this product still plaintively bandy about the query “What do women want?,” while at the same time supplying their own answer to their own question. Our Marriage’s melodramatic rendition joins a growing list of projects (most recently Bette Gordon’s attempt at appropriating pornography in Variety) that work toward remedying a situation that thrives on the stereotypical spectacle of wanting, waiting, and weeping.

Barbara Kruger