Queen Christina by Celestino Deleyto

The music of genre

Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

Celestino Deleyto  

Much has been written about Greta Garbo’s performance in the spectacular final shot of this film, an example of both non-acting (Mamoulian advised Garbo to assume a blank expression on her face) and great star acting. The greatness of the director’s choice would appear to derive from the individual spectators filling in the blank with their own emotions and experience. A close look at the scene, however, reveals that matters are a little more complex. For example, there is an obvious sense in which the swelling musical score does much of the filling in for us, but there is another type of musicality at work here which is probably more important. This is what I would call the music of genre.

Although Queen Christina has routinely been described as melodrama, or historical melodrama, the film, like most films, uses conventions from various other genres, notably romantic comedy and the swashbuckler adventure. The famous cross-dressing scene, in which the queen disguises herself as a young man and as such meets, falls in love with and spends the night at the inn with Don Antonio (John Gilbert), the Spanish ambassador, is directly modelled on Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy. Garbo’s sexual ambiguity plays to great effect here and Mamoulian contrives to use the actress’s great acting as a successful visual correlative of the sexually charged verbal sparring of the Shakespearean lovers. However, part of the effect of this moment is compounded by the melodramatic construction of the previous scenes at the palace: Christina’s melancholy exhilaration is explained by her awareness that, because of the repressive space in which she lives and which she cannot escape, this moment of happiness is already a thing of the past, a golden memory which she, therefore, is more interested in preserving than in living. Part of the unique power of the film consists precisely in making the spectator share a very real experience of strong desire and delightful fulfilment with the just as real knowledge of the inevitability of its imminent loss, that is, a delicate balance between romantic comedy and melodrama.

The sexual fulfilment of the inn also comes as the climax of a series of scenes characterised by constant generic alternation: the protagonist moves from the palace to the snowed up countryside where she meets Don Antonio to the internal space of the inn as the movie shifts from melodrama to adventure to comedy. This constant change of genre is also underscored by parallel changes in narrative rhythm. In Queen Christina it feels as if each genre has its own rhythm, its own music, from the largos and adagios of melodrama to the allegros of adventure or the andantes of romcom. Although Mamoulian never directed a silent film, Queen Christina, like most of his other films, earlier and later, fully shares the sophisticated narrative rhythm of such late silent masterpieces as Sunrise (1927), The Crowd (1928) or Queen Kelly (1928), a musicality which the director probably developed directing operas and operettas on the Broadway stage in the nineteen twenties. In films like Applause (1929), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Love Me Tonight (1932) or The Mark of Zorro (1940), he experimented with generic conventions, finding different narrative rhythms for the various genres he tackled. Mamoulian’s generic practice comes into its own in Queen Christina which works like a symphony with constant musical modulations which construct the meanings of the movie on the basis of the contrasts and counterpoints between its assorted generic rhythms. The climax of this method also constitutes the climax of the film.

Queen Christina abdicates in favour of her cousin before her initially shocked and then disconsolate subjects in one of many sections of the film in which the almost complete stasis of romantic melodrama is visualised through lingering close-ups of the star, complemented by briefer reaction shots of other characters. After this moment of near standstill, the adventure genre swiftly takes over as the protagonist rides down to the coast to meet her lover. Here, as in many other swashbucklers, adventure is shorthand for freedom. The full effect of the new rhythm can only be understood with reference to the previous, melodramatic scene: the repressive love of her country and political intrigue versus erotic anticipation. Simultaneously, however, the Spanish ambassador is fighting a duel with his rival and the movie’s villain Count Magnus (Ian Keith). The narrative alternates between the two spaces, but, although the two are codified within the same genre, their rhythms are significantly different: the pace of the duel is not as gay but more mechanical and disengaged than that of Christina’s journey, subtly anticipating a tragic outcome which we never get to see on screen. This adventure section is then followed by the queen’s arrival at the ship where Don Antonio is already dying. The moment of his death is a return to the previous stasis as the camera once again lingers on Garbo in close-up. The blend of distress, melancholia and exhilaration about a future without her lover but far away from the repression of the Swedish court only makes sense in the context of the swashbuckler section which has been dramatically interrupted: loss would not be very impressive if we were not fully aware of the importance of what is lost. Once the heroine has made up her mind as to the course to follow, the narrative rhythm quickens again: she has come out of her mourning and has recuperated the adventure mood of the earlier moments. Our understanding of the final tracking shot, which once again underlines the importance of all types of movement in this film, is a complex composite of all the generic shifts, aided by the combination of melodramatic, adventure and romcom rhythms that we have internalised and learned to interpret. Desire and loss, repression and freedom have all acquired their own music and it is ultimately this fusion of contradictory but compatible emotions that we are now able to read into the supposedly blank surface of Garbo’s face.




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