Talking Pictures

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Sisters on Film

Posted by keith1942 on August 21, 2009

Juliette and Lea meet

Sisters Juliette and Lea.


This was a study day at the National Media Museum with a screening of the recent French success I’ve Loved You So Long / II y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008). The study notes provided have been amended to include comments that were made by the tutor and by students during the discussions.

Family dramas are a staple of books, plays and films. The small, closely-knit group provides a fertile space for emotions and conflicts. And the characters and their stories often stand in for wider social issues. Television soaps would be a good example from contemporary culture. We are familiar with some recurring characters: the authoritarian father, the self-sacrificing mother, the rebellious son and his devoted sister.

In the study day I wanted to focus on the relationships between sisters rather than with other family members. The selection of extracts demonstrates that sisters can be found across a variety of genres. This means that there is not just one standard, recognisable figure in popular films. I wanted to suggest that melodrama provides one way of studying such characters and their varying situations. Strictly speaking, the term refers to “drama with music: the music marking the points of high emotion.” [Peter Brooks, 1976]. But the term also refers to a dramatic form that flourished in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Charles Dickens novels, for example Oliver Twist, would be one type, where Oliver is at the mercy of evil men but is rescued by a virtuous one.  This can be distinguished from a more psychological novel like George Elliot’s Middlemarch, where Dorothea and Lydgate come to realise their own weaknesses and mistakes. The characteristics of melodrama include:

Strong emotion

Moral polarities, i.e. characters are good or evil

Evil villains who persecute good characters

Virtue frequently misrecognised, partly because it remains dumb

At the end virtue usually rewarded

Extravagant and inflated expression

Cliff-hanger plots, full of incident and co-incidence.” [Brooks, 1976].

Clearly some film dramas fit this set of characteristics fairly neatly; this was especially during the silent era. Sergei Eisenstein writes compellingly of the parallels between Dickens and the US film pioneer D. W. Griffith. In Orphans of the Storm [1921] Lilian and Dorothy Gish are adopted sisters, Dorothy is blind, separated and menaced by the events of the French revolution.

Such dramas continued with the arrival of sound cinema and there were genres such as the ‘woman’s picture’ and the ‘family melodrama’. The woman’s picture offers a female centred narrative where the heroine frequently comes into conflict with dominant [and male-centred] values. Brief Encounter (1945) dramatises a married woman’s illicit affair. The family melodrama focuses on an enclosed society and their intense emotional interaction. Mandy (1952) dramatises the problems for a family with a deaf-and-dumb daughter. In both genres the problems that confront characters are most likely caused by social mores and the happy endings have to either reconcile characters to these or offer a new and changed environment. Laura (Celia Johnson) in Brief Encounter accepts the restriction of married and domestic existence: Mandy’s parents learn to accept their daughter’s situation.

At a more general level melodrama ‘became a “meta-genre” infusing and structuring different genres. The latter might include film noir, “viewed as a fusion of melodrama (dealing with desire) and the crime film.”  Westerns are also fairly melodramatic, whilst action movies often contain one or more melodramatic scenes.

Students identified a number of ‘emotional characteristics that seem to be common to dramas that focus on sisters. These included:

Affection …. Protection

Rivalry ……. Jealousy

Family hierarchies

Devotion (to father, to brother) to elder sister)

The study used a series of film extracts to provide a context for discussion.

AN UNSEEN ENEMY July 1912 Biograph. Black and white, with Intertitles.

Directed by D. W. Griffith. Cameraman G. W. Bitzer.

Cast: Dorothy and Lilian Gish – the sisters; Elmer Booth – the brother; Grace Henderson – maid; Harry Carey – accomplice.

This early one reel drama has a completely melodramatic plot, with the sisters menaced by burglars and saved by a rescue dash by their brother, which Griffith intercuts with the threat to the young women.

One aspect we noticed was that the sister played by Dorothy protects that played by Lilian Gish. It is also Dorothy who takes action to thwart the burglars. This seems to have set their personas for their careers. Lillian Gish was clearly a strong woman, producing some of her later movies, but she almost always plays a victim. Dorothy is sometimes a victim, [as in Orphans of the Storm], but quite often she is very active and even tomboyish, [as in Hearts of the World, 1918).

 Little Women, 1933, RKO, black and white.

Director George Cukor: screenplay Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, from the novel by Louisa May Alcott: photography Henry Gerrard: music Max Steiner.

With Katherine Hepburn as Jo: Joan Bennett as Amy, Frances Dee as Meg and Jean Parker as Beth. Academy Award for Best Screenplay, adaptation.

We watched the scene early in the film where we see the mother and four sisters at home. First they read a letter from their absent father, then they sing together round the piano.

There was a clear sense of traditional values embodied in this middle class family.

Meet Me in St Louis, 1944, MGM Technicolor.

Director Vincente Minnelli; photography George Folsey;

Judy Garland as Esther, Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, Leon Ames as the father, Mary Astor as the mother.

The film is set on the eve of the St Louis Exhibition of 1903. The family are threatened with upheaval as father decides to move to New York for a better job. The outburst by the youngest daughter is the climatic point that achieves a change of heart.

We watched the scene where Esther sings Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas to the younger Tootie. This is followed by Tootie’s outburst as she rushes into the garden and smashes the snow family, dressed in the garb of various family members. This seems to be a return of the family’s repressed emotions and persuades the father to relent and stay in St. Louis.

 They were Sisters, 1945, Gainsborough, black and white.

Director Arthur Crabtree; screenplay Roland Pertwee and Katherine Streuby from the novel by Dorothy Whipple; photography Jack Cox;

Cast James Mason – Geoffrey; Dulcie Gray – Charlotte; Phyllis Calvert – Lucy; Anne Crawford – Vera.

Three sisters have very different experiences of marriage. James Mason is the sadistic husband of Charlotte.

We watched a scene where Geoffrey persecutes Charlotte. Later Lucy visits her and realises she has become a secret drinker. It was pointed out that Charlotte’s room is at the top of the stairs, almost in an attic, which suggests madness: shades of Bertha in Jane Eyre.

The Dark Mirror 1946, International, black and white.

Director Robert Siodmak; screenplay Nunnally Johnson; photography Milton Krasner; music Dimitri Tiomkin.

Olivia de Havilland plays identical twins; Lew Ayres is a psychiatrist who has to decide which one is a murderer.

I had to leave this extract out, but is interesting, both because de Havilland plays two parts, and also because one sister is psychotic.

The Silence – 1963, Tystnaden Svensk, black and white.

Director Ingmar Bergman. Photography Sven Nykvist. Ingrid Thulin as Ester; Gunnel Lindblom as Anna. To sisters in a largely deserted hotel in an unnamed country working out their emotional conflicts.

Again I had to leave this out. As you would expect with Bergman this film is a dark psychological study rather than melodrama.

Hilary and Jackie 1998, Intermedia / Film Four, colour Panavision.

Director Anand Tucker; screenplay Frank Cottrell Boyce; photography David Johnson.

Emily Watson plays the renowned cellist Jacqueline de Pré, Rachel Griffith her sister.

The traumas of celebrity are worked out in these family relationships.

This is also a psychological study but the film does have moments of melodrama. The scene we watched was a flashback that showed a key scene where Jackie disrupts Hilary’s family life. In the first part of the film we see events from Hilary’s perspective: later we revisit events from Jackie’s perspective.


Resources: Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, Yale UP, 1976. Also Michael Walker Melodrama and American Cinema in Movie issue 29/30 summer 1982. See also Home is Where the Heart Is Studies in Melodrama and the woman’s film, edited by Christine Gledhill, bfi publishing 1987.


I’ve Loved You So Long / II y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008, colour and widescreen 1.85:1).

This film circulated in both a High Definition digital print and a 35mm print: we viewed the latter. There has been some discussion about the differences, [see ITP World]. I think the celluloid print brings out better the changing colour palette of the film. The plot shows us the central character, Kristin Scott Thomas – Juliette, recovering from a fifteen year jail sentence for the murder of her own son. I noted an increasing warmth in the colours as the film progressed, which seemed to correspond to Juliette’s increasing warmth as she rebuilt relationships with other people. The changing colour palette is paralleled by the mise en scène, with the characters’ position in the frame and to other characters also dramatises this development. And the performance and staging is emphasised by the use of long shot and close-up.

The central relationship is with her sister, Elsa Zylberstein – Léa. Both actresses have deservedly received praise for fine performances. In the film Léa is a younger sister who has carried a love for her elder all through the years of separation. This love is one of the strongest factors in Juliette’s opening up to the world. Two other important characters are Léa’s husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), and Michel (Laurent Grevill), a colleague of Léa who becomes romantically interested in Juliette.


Music has an important function in the film, underlying emotional points between characters. It is also used in the plot [diegetically]. Twice we see Juliette at the piano: once with her adopted niece and once with her sister. The song, A La Clare Fontaine, has a line that provides the title to the film. This also ties in with another recurring motif in the film, water. The latter has association with cleansing and rebirth. Emotional weight is added when we discover that Léa has given up playing the piano. This parallels her avoidance of childbirth: she and her husband Luc had adopted children, even though there is no medical bar to pregnancy.


The film ends on the climax of the story as Julliete finally explains to her sister about the death of her son. It was a mercy killing for an incurable decease, which Juliette, as doctor, was able to diagnose. This final scene starts on the staircase, often a site of emotional transition, and then moves to the upstairs bedroom. After an emotional exchange the sisters sit side-by-side on the bed. The front door opens and someone enters.  A voice calls out twice, “Its Michel – anyone home?” At the second time Juliette answers, ‘Yes, I’m here’, and repeats it to her sister. This works as a variation on one of the commonest final lines in family melodramas, ‘lets go home’. And, as in those other movies, it signals Juiliete’s rehabilitation into the family and the wider society.

The way that the film achieves this closure is problematic. We have been told earlier in the plot that Juliette was tried, found guilty and sentenced. Her husband and her parents disowned her because of what was seen as a heinous crime. During the trial Juliette had refused to speak about the killing or its circumstances. This appears to have included the lawyers appointed to defend her. This is an example of the ‘heroine’s silence’, a frequent trope in melodrama. However, it is difficult to believe that, for example, there would not have been an autopsy, which would have revealed the incurable decease. Some people found this almost mechanistic plot device unsatisfactory. Other, probably because of the effectiveness of the film and the actresses, found it moving and compelling.

As you might expect there was not a complete consensus on the film. However, most people found it moving, and also offering social comment. The use of the concept of melodrama and the common motifs found in that form were also helpful in analysing the film. Clearly it offers a number of tropes common to the form and its treatment of female siblings. The silence of the heroine: the intense emotion between the younger and older sister: the reconstitution of the family: and the family itself becoming a site for wider social issues.


The film is available on a Lionsgate DVD in French with English subtitles.


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