The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991, dir. Simon Callow) is not a rewarding film. Although it has been some time since I read the Carson McCullers story on which it is based, my recollection is that the story is a plaintive tale of lost love and retribution. The film is actually an adaptation of Edward Albee’s dramatic treatment of the McCullers story. The tone is plaintive and mournful. The film left me cold. It proceeds in robotic fashion to trace the life of a woman, Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave), disappointed in life and in love. We first see her as a face peering out the front door of an abandoned building. The film then backtracks to earlier years, when men would stop on the porch of her general store on the way home from work to buy and drink the moonshine she made at her still. The woman’s face is hard and emotionless, and her hair is cut short, like a man’s. One day a little man, a midget (Cork Hubbard), walks into town claiming to be her cousin Lyman. He entrances her, and he convinces her to open up a café where the townspeople—who never appear to be anything other than bored and lifeless—can come at night to dine and converse. (Who cooks the food? I don’t think the film ever shows anyone cooking. We see people eating only). Lyman learns that Amelia was once married, but she refuses to say anything about her husband when he asks. He becomes fascinated with the notion of her former husband, whose name was Marvin Macy. Just coincidentally, about that time, Macy (Keith Carradine) walks into town, recently released from prison. Another flashback shows us that Marvin had loved Amelia years before, that to win her hand he abandoned his carousing ways and combed his hair. He proposed to her, she accepted, and they married. But soon after they go upstairs for the wedding night, she throws him downstairs and will have nothing to do with him any longer. We can only speculate as to why. Years later, when he returns to town, nothing has improved between them. He is still bitter over how she rejected him. The resolution of the film focuses on the conflict between Amelia and Marvin and Lyman. The conflict climaxes in a brutal fistfight.
The film’s setting is notable for its bleakness. Life in the small Southern town (apparently during the Depression) is so bleak and monotonous that all the men can do is work and drink. I was reminded of the desolate town in the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter (1973). In such a place, the arrival of a stranger, any stranger, is a break from the routine. The arrival of Cousin Lyman, a strange little man who talks incessantly and performs comic routines on a more or less continuous basis, offers relief from their deadening existence.
The still that Amelia operates is on the far side of a swamp. She has to wade through the swamp in hip boots to reach the still, which sits next to a tall rock outcrop. I am unaware of any such geological formations in the Deep South—tall rock walls next to swamps—but maybe some exist.
This film comments not so much on the South—though it does suggest that people in the South are dull and violent individuals who lead uninteresting, benighted lives—as on the nature of gender identification and sexual rivalry. Amelia and Marvin may love each other but they are so incompatible that they cannot bear—or at least Amelia cannot bear—the thought of being touched by the other. Amelia is fascinated with Lyman, who is infatuated with Marvin, who loves Amelia, who loves him in turn but wants nothing to do with him. She’s hurt when Lyman rejects her for Marvin, hurt further by the fistfight in which Marvin beats her senseless while the entire population of the town watches in transfixed fascination.
I may simply have missed the point. Cousin Lyman is certainly the most fascinating figure in the film. Vanessa Redgrave never elevates Amelia to a level that allows us to feel much sympathy or even interest. Keith Carradine seems simply bitter. Rod Steiger as the town preacher seems lost and out of place. The film suggests that life is hard, that people who love one another also make each other miserable, that we are entrapped within socially imposed definitions of gender, that we are simply entrapped in general. It fails to explore these propositions in coherent ways.