Danzon: the Anti-Melodrama

Maria Novaro’s film Danzon may on the surface appear to be another “women need men” type of movie—the search of a woman for her man so that she can enjoy the heterosexual privilege of marital status. The careless watcher may simply say that Julia goes on this long journey to find Carmelo, has several adventures and finds herself, but still does end up with him. However, the truth is that this film is actually a critique of the Mexican melodramas of the first half of the twentieth century. “What Novaro… creates is almost deceptively simple, especially in light of that country’s flamboyantly melodramatic narrative film tradition. Danzon is actively non-melodramatic and clear-eyed” (Baumgarten para 1).

Melodrama, as pointed out by Ana M. Lopez, “has been one of the most important areas for the development of feminist film criticism. Long considered a ‘feminine’ mode because of its insistent attention to the domestic sphere and related emotional issues, the melodrama—especially the subset of the genre known as the ‘woman’s film’ and ostensibly addressed to female audiences” (Lopez 254). In Latin American cinema, it is also marked by a heavy use of music and dance—and more importantly dancing women—to disrupt the narrative in favor of visual pleasure—“melodramatic pathos emerged in the moment of performance itself (through gesture, sentiment, interactions with the audience… or simply music choice)” (255-256). In relation to Mexican cinema, “melodrama always addresses questions of individual (gendered) identity within patriarchal culture” (256) and “mothers may have a guaranteed place in the home as pillars of strength, tolerance, and self-abnegation—in other words, as oedipal illusions—but outside the home they are prey to the male desires that the Mexican home and family disavow” (261).

Danzon succeeds in turning this melodramatic system on its head by inverting each of the above principles: performance, identity, and sexuality. To begin with, the film is named for a ballroom dance—“Novaro chose it for its thematic possibilities: ‘In the danzon the man seduces, and the woman shines. I liked it as a frame for my story’ …it offered the opportunity to contrast traditional romantic attitudes with the increasingly independent nature of the movie’s determined middle-aged heroine” (Hartl para 2). By doing so, she is also recalling the cabaretera films of the 1950s, wherein the woman is often a “fallen” figure who dances in a brothel and redeemed by motherhood; these films often used dance as a mode for melodramatic expression.

It opens with the feet of the dancers, and thus the reliance on music and dance, only with the twist. We don’t see the dancers, only their feet, and thus the dance itself. Why? First, to emphasize that in past films the interest wasn’t in the dancing or singing being presented, but in the visual pleasure of watching the female form. Second, it shows the rather painful footwear forced on the women by men so that the shapes of their calves are changed; this is emphasized by the women’s hasty removal of the shoes as soon as the dance is over. For Julia, the danzon is her life—rigid and controlled by men, be it patriarchal culture or her dance partner. The film is about the breaking of this rigid structure.

“Novaro zeros in on vestiges of Mexican popular culture of the ‘40s and ‘50s, lingering on photographs of movie stars, sentimental ballads, and dance music” (Sanchez para 6). Throughout the film, melodramatic music is used, but it is not often sung by a singer who is present on film. Instead, it is often used as a transitional piece and as emphasis on the emotions being expressed by the characters. Moreover, when one does see a character sing on screen, it is Dona Ti the hotel manager singing “Toni la Negra” songs, or Suzy the drag queen’s stage act—both characters being the opposite of what traditional visual pleasure through the disruption of narrative would want—an older woman and a transvestite homosexual. Also, the frame of the stage on which the woman dances is replaced in Novaro’s film by actual picture frames, containing pictures of famous dancers (women) and of landscapes. They are transitional pictures, bridging the gap from one location in the film to the next.

The film also subverts the Madonna-Whore complex of melodrama, by giving us a heroine for whom a great deal of her odyssey is sexual. Julia begins the film as a single mother with severe sexual repression; the only man of any importance in her life is Carmelo, her danzon partner, who she barely knows, much less have any sort of romantic or sexual relationship with. Despite this, she goes in search of him, leaving Mexico City for Veracruz. Along the way, she leaves her very rigid life behind—a rigidity symbolized by the structure of the danzon—and finds herself by exploring the undesirables of Mexican society: prostitutes and drag queens. Worse yet, she has an affair with a younger man! And yet destruction doesn’t come to Julia, as it would in a melodrama. Quite the opposite—she finds herself by exploring sexuality.

One could argue that Julia’s return to Mexico City is the product of the “salvation-by-motherhood” element of melodrama. However, I think that it is inevitable that she must return to her daughter and leave her wild life behind. For one, she has a child to raise—she can’t simply abandon her daughter, who she obviously loves. Secondly, the purpose of the journey of discovery is for the quester to grow, to find her identity, and then return home with that identity—not to stay on that quest. At the end of the film, Julia has found herself, and no longer needs to stay in Veracruz, despite the fact that she hasn’t found Carmelo yet. Her salvation is not found in her being a mother, but in the fact that she has already reclaimed herself.

By making Julia the quester, Novaro is also upsetting a typical patriarchal standard of the quest—that is, the hero is often questing for a heroine. He is often trying, like Odysseus, to return to or find a woman, who is the bearer of meaning but not the creator of it. Novaro subverts this by making Julia the quester and Carmelo—a man—the bearer of meaning. In the final scene, Julia returns to the danzon ballroom in Mexico City, and there finds Carmelo, after all her journeying in Veracruz. When she dances with him, one would be mistaken in thinking that she is simply returning to her old ways, now that she has found Carmelo. For one, she only dances with him by breaking the structure of the danzon, something she could never do before. Secondly, she locks her eyes with his—another forbidden act within this dance, as she is not supposed to be the seducer.

Finally, and more importantly, he is less a man than a symbol. He represents the idea that in order to find yourself you must leave yourself (or your patriarchal pre-determined identity). The narrative structure is then reversed. The search for Carmelo isn’t the search for a man or for the comfort of a heterosexual relationship. Julia goes in search of a person who she cares about, and who she believes cares about her. The person she finds is herself. That her sexual affairs do not impede her search only serves to emphasize that Carmelo is not a man (and thus not a means to heterosexual privilege) but an idea, and by being an idea, reverses the patriarchal narrative structure.

Maria Novaro’s film takes the traditional Mexican melodrama and turns it on its head—the motherly figure rediscovers sexuality instead of represing it (and with a younger man, no less); the cabaretera is replaced by singing transvestites; visual pleasure is replaced by a visual emphasis on physical pain and rigidity; and the man that the heroine goes searching for is the bearer of meaning, not the quester herself. In doing so, Novaro challenges patriarchal narrative structure and gives us what is both a liberating comedy and a quiet satire.

Works Cited

Baumgarten, Marjorie. “Danzon” The Austin Chronicle Movie Guide. January 29, 1993. Internet Source. WWW: http://www.auschron.com/film/pages/movies/2191.html. 2001.

Hartl, John. “Danzon.” Film.Com. nd. Internet source. WWW: http://www.film.com/film-review/1992/8518/109/ default-review.html 2001.

Lopez, Ana M. “Tears and Desire: Women and Melodrama in the ‘Old’ Mexican Cinema.” Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. ed. Diane Carlson, et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994.

Sanchez, Elena. “Danzon.” Hispanic. Jan/Feb 1993. Vol. 6, Issue 1. Internet source: Ebscohost.