“How Would You Describe Our Bonds?”

The Chosen Family Melodrama

All About My Mother (1999) | illustration by Tom Ralston

In LGBTQIA+ communities, the concept of the chosen family has deep significance, both emotional and historical. For queer people, chosen families often compensate for absences, or are balms for wounds. They’re recompense for the ostracization or even abuse that members have experienced from their families of origin. Yet chosen families are not utopian. They’re support systems sustained by complicated bonds, sometimes both familial and romantic. Chosen families provide the freedom of recognition and acceptance, but they’re not totally free from the homophobic conditions of society at large. They’re spaces of expression and repression—in other words, particularly ripe for melodrama. In cinema, chosen family melodramas are sprawling, surprising, and passionate films, playing with the traditional forms of film melodrama to reflect bonds that are often in flux and difficult to describe.

The conventional family melodrama was defined by film theorist Thomas Elsaesser as a subgenre of Hollywood films that reached their height in the 1950s, in the work of directors like Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Nicholas Ray. For Elsaesser, these films’ colors, textures, and framing symbolized characters’ inner states of emotional repression and social confinement. “Hysteria” is “bubbling all the time just below the surface,” he wrote in “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” Rhythms build up tension that converts repression into expression. Elsaesser is particularly interested in the musicality of melodrama (the “melo”’ in melodrama comes from the Greek melos, meaning “song”). In the classical family melodrama, the choreography of compressed storytelling, editing, and movement create “tempi,” whose ‘shifting moods’ allow for the expression of “suppressed energy” in moments of overblown emotion and pathos.  

For Elsaesser, the style and structure of the Hollywood family melodrama reflect the oppressive atmosphere of “social conformity and psychological neurosis” that characterized the idealized family values of 1950s America. (The film he discusses most thoroughly is Sirk’s Written on the Wind, which concerns strife between a father and his children, thwarted desires, impossible loves, and the ravages of alcoholism.) Characters in family melodramas are consistently alienated from both their families and their social classes. Elsaesser sees these films as “devastating critique[s]” of the society of their time.

The classic family melodrama has long attracted queer fans and directors, who see aspects of the queer experience reflected in its atmosphere of repression and longing. Queer directors, most notably Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, made films that explicitly reconstruct or quote the genre in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Far from Heaven (2002), respectively. Other queer directors have taken a different approach, remaking the genre by explicitly depicting queer chosen families. Elsaesser viewed the strict formalism of the Hollywood family melodrama (its pressure cooker of tight frames and lurid colors, and its intense releases of physical and emotional expression) as directly related to the strict—and strictly heteronormative—mores of the society it represented. Conceiving of a chosen family melodrama requires some structural renovations. The particular conditions of the chosen family—the external and internal pressures that create drama, joy, and suffering; the emotional dynamics of relationships that are improvised and often in flux—require a freer aesthetic hand.

In the late 1990s, two queer directors made powerfully moving and historically essential melodramas about chosen families. In Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Patrice Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), characters live in a tenuous moment: most are out and living fairly visible queer lives, while still facing violence, ignorance, and the lack of fundamental rights (including the right to marry and form more ‘conventional’ family bonds). Their explorations of pain and pleasure are haunted by the specter of the AIDS crisis, with the high melodramatic stakes of life and death. These chosen family melodramas share DNA with (and sometimes explicitly borrow from) the traditional family melodrama, while mixing generic styles and finding bold, unconstrained ones to reflect different ways of relating and desiring.

In Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, the style of the classical family melodrama is expanded: the high style and emotions are enriched by bawdy humor and dialogue, as well as self-conscious commentary on melodrama as a genre for and about women. The story opens with Manuela, a nurse coordinating organ transplants at a hospital in Madrid. After her teenage son Esteban is killed in a car crash while trying to get an autograph from a famous actress, Huma Rojo, Manuela returns to Barcelona, where she lived as a young woman. She’s looking for her ex-spouse and Esteban’s other parent, Lola, a trans woman struggling with addiction. She reconnects with her friend Agrado, a trans woman and sex worker who tells Manuela that Lola has robbed her and skipped town. Through Agrado, Manuela meets Rosa, a nun who works with sex workers and is pregnant by Lola. Meanwhile, Manuela and Agrado work for Huma and her co-star and lover Nina, who’s also struggling with heroin addiction. Over the course of this poignant, witty, and screwy story, these very different women form powerful bonds cemented by humor and sorrow. Agrado and Manuela, once close, have not been in contact for 18 years, and some tension lingers. Both have been badly burned by Lola, and they share the wry humor of survivors. Rosa, too, has been seduced and abandoned by Lola. There’s a melodramatic reversal of fortune here: once the ministering angel, Rosa now needs looking after when she knows that her biological family (who didn’t want her to be a nun in the first place) would disapprove. Then, there is the dark, almost supernatural link that ties Manuela to Huma and Nina, since her son had been chasing their car when he was struck dead. Huma is drawn to Manuela because of her connection to Esteban’s death. When Agrado replaces Manuela as Huma’s assistant, the two are first skeptical of each other but forge a common bond when they recognize the other as a different kind of performer.

Almodóvar’s signature vibrant décor and artful framing fulfills the emotional work traditionally done by the visual style of classical Hollywood melodramas. Important conversations and moments of repression-then-eruption take place in vivid, brimming domestic spaces. (Seeing an Almodóvar film almost always results in a profound urge to redecorate.) One of his favorite settings is the kitchen, overstuffed with elegant, multicolored crockery, cookware, and serving trays. Almodóvar’s kitchen scenes are shot more loosely and have a more convivial atmosphere than depictions of domesticity in classical family melodramas, which entrap characters in tight tableaux of quiet desperation. Take the scenes in which Manuela and Agrado sit in Agrado’s exquisite, candy-colored kitchen: Agrado has been badly beaten by a client, and Manuela dresses her wounds. The scene, despite the visible reminder of the risks of Agrado’s profession, is played for comedy. Agrado delivers a bitchy monologue about Lola’s treachery. She’s particularly stung by Lola’s betrayal because she felt a sisterly connection with her, since they “got [their] tits together.” This chosen family has been broken, just as Manuela and Lola’s marriage broke down. (For Manuela, the issue was not Lola’s transition, but her infidelity.) In the specter of these ruptured bonds, melodrama swells beneath the humor: Manuela laughs at Agrado’s chatter, but the mention of Lola (and her thoughts of her dead son) makes tears well up in her eyes. An equally emotional Agrado wants to know why Manuela left her so suddenly 18 years ago. Manuela resists the melodramatic moment of catharsis, promising to tell her later. Agrado generously accepts her reticence.

Manuela’s inability to talk about Esteban’s death is the film’s big melodramatic repression, something that the chosen family benevolently deflects with salty comedy that may be jarring to modern sensibilities. Agrado’s frank discussion of her surgical and cosmetic procedures sometimes seems to cater to inappropriately prurient obsession with the trans body. But Antonia San Juan’s performance as Agrado, kind and flirty with a self-assured core of steel, defuses much of this anxiety. Agrado is a natural performer (San Juan herself was a cabaret actress) and it seems that performing the history of her body only reinforces her womanhood. The film joyfully dissects sexual politics; when Manuela chokes up after Huma brings her the autograph that she never gave to Esteban, the other women fill the space around her silence with raunchy banter. The gathering becomes an intimate girl’s night, where they dish over cava and ice cream. Agrado, who takes great pride in the professionalism of her sex work, says she’s discreet when “sucking someone’s cock.” This leads Huma, the lesbian, to marvel that it’s been years since she’s sucked a cock. Rosa, the nun, says how much she loves the word “cock.” While such frank talk (and crude words) about sex is the very thing the family melodramas of the 1950s work so hard to repress, here it is the conduit that leads to melodrama. The women dissolve into raucous laughter, the balm of the chosen family that allows melodramatic pain and hysteria to emerge on its own time, giving it a bigger emotional wallop when it finally arrives.

These scenes suggest that being in a chosen family requires virtuosic spontaneity: the ability to swing from one mood to the next, to wittily deflect, and to extemporize on the many strange idiosyncracies of sex, identity, and desire. All About My Mother is deeply interested in women’s lives as performances, which leads Almodóvar to a meta-commentary on feminine performance as the cornerstone of melodrama. On the night of Esteban’s death, Manuela and Esteban see Huma’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire—an American melodrama about a family’s ostracization of its hysterical, difficult woman. Manuela is profoundly affected by the play; she later tells Esteban (who knows nothing of his other parent) that she and Lola met in an amateur production of Streetcar where Manuela played Stella (a long-suffering wife and sister) and Lola played Stanley Kowalski (Stella’s brutish and abusive husband).

After Esteban’s death, Manuela sees the play many times while she works as Huma’s assistant, and it moves her to tears. The theatrical performance is a ritual that summons up her fractured family of origin: her dead son and the spouse who betrayed her. The production, with its bright blue background, bright red costumes, and tight frames, looks a lot like a Sirk melodrama. One  night, Nina is too high to play Stella, and Manuela takes her place. We watch her perform a scene where Stella chides Kowalski for his brutishness, while Kowalski insists that this is exactly what he likes about her. Playing and replaying this scene as an actress is cathartic, and seems to unlock some unresolved aspect of Manuela’s relationship with Lola; her roleplaying opens her up to receiving and giving kindness. Her breakthrough brings her chosen family closer together. 

Acting allows Manuela to act out and express the submerged emotions that have prevented the women from fully bonding. In the scene following Manuela’s performance, Rosa tells her that she has contracted HIV from Lola. Manuela’s repressed, complex feelings—anger and jealousy that Lola seduced Rosa, and that Rosa is having a baby while she has lost her son—finally come to the surface. She gestures and cries, tearfully castigating Rosa for sleeping with Lola while knowing she was a drug user. They’re caught in a Sirkian mise-en-scène: both women wear uncharacteristically gray colors, which match the wallpaper printed in an Op art style with overlapping circles—a symbol, perhaps, of the intersecting but amorphous ties between the women. It’s after this cathartic, theatrically-inspired breakthrough that Manuela (who’d wanted Rosa to reconcile with her birth mother) finally agrees to be Rosa’s surrogate mother (though, in keeping with the fluidity of the chosen family, she often call herself Rosa’s sister) and caregiver during her difficult pregnancy. 

Classical melodrama not only stars great actresses, but also requires its women characters to act: to suppress desires, to appear happy when their hearts are breaking. Acting opens the floodgates for Manuela’s melodramatic expression, but Almodóvar also positions performance as something more lighthearted, and as a powerful way to bind the chosen family together. “I can lie very well, and I’m used to improvising,” Manuela tells Huma before she goes onstage. Artificiality and sincerity are not incompatible. “All I have that’s real are my feelings,” Agrado says. “And these pints of silicone that weigh a ton.” Here, womanhood is a constant act of improvisation, and that requires flexibility. Women can relate to each other in a variety of ways. Through these shifts in registers, and this winking knowingness, melodrama twists and turns, surfacing in surprising (and surprisingly moving) ways. 

Elsaesser believed that melodramatic characters often veer between the tragic and the comic, but for him that makes them pathetic in a way that alienates the spectator. For Almodóvar, comedy is survival; in All About My Mother, pain laced with joy leads to a melodramatic happy ending. There’s the unjust loss of the innocent, followed by second chances: Rosa dies in childbirth but delivers a healthy boy, who Manuela adopts and names Esteban. The film’s great sadnesses and tragedies, and its emotional trajectories, float along on a kind, buoyant drift, where no loss is meaningless, and where second chances and transformations, however painful or sorrowful, reap joyous results that make life still worth celebrating. 

This bittersweet, melodramatic ‘happy ending’—the blossoming of new life despite the possible “death sentence” of HIV and AIDS—is also the focus of Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, a more melancholic but still redemptive chosen family melodrama. If Almodóvar has a somewhat rosy view of how women can carry each other through pain and joy, Chéreau’s vision of the chosen family is more ambivalent. He unsparingly dissects their less-than-perfect tendencies: the misogyny that gay men can direct toward women, the seduction and abandonment of the young and the beautiful, and the skepticism with which trans women are sometimes treated by cisgender queers. But if Chéreau’s eye is unflinching, it’s still profoundly compassionate, and Those Who Love Me does not skimp on melodramatic pleasures.

Like All About My Mother, the film is about moving on with life after death. It follows the aftermath of the death of semi-famous artist Jean-Baptiste Emmerich, who was the center of a bohemian circle including artists, writers, former students, and ex-lovers. “The family Jean-Baptiste chose is us,” his old friend Lucie says. The melodrama begins almost immediately, as this chosen family takes the train from Paris to Limoges to attend his funeral. Louis, one of Jean-Baptiste’s friends, falls in love at first sight with a young man named Bruno. On the train, Louis’s long-term lover, François, tells him that Bruno is HIV-positive, and previously had affairs with both Jean-Baptiste and François himself. Louis is so upset that he runs off the train in tears. The situation is further complicated because Jean-Baptiste’s chosen family overlaps with his biological family: Jean-Baptiste’s nephew, Jean-Marie, has adopted his uncle as his “spiritual father” after becoming estranged from his biological one (Jean-Baptiste’s twin brother), whom he blames for the death of his mentally ill mother. Jean-Marie is also estranged from his wife, Claire, who’s struggling with addiction and has just found out that she’s pregnant. Finally, the mourners are shocked by the appearance of Viviane, Jean-Baptiste’s child, who most have not seen since her transition.

Jean-Baptiste was a planet that all the others orbited around. Without him, everyone is uncertain about their relationship to the others. You feel this sense of anxious skittering from the beginning of the film, where the camera follows groups of mourners as they snake their way through the crowded station. They meet up only to get lost and separated; they move towards the platform only to retreat again, for that last cigarette or cup of coffee, or to gaze with naked longing at a beautiful young man. No one seems quite ready to move forward, or to face each other.

The shaky instability of this chosen family is sketched out beautifully in the film’s first half, which depicts the train journey to the funeral. These scenes were actually shot on a moving train, and the sense of perpetual motion feels authentic while intensifying the melodramatic subplots with swooping, sweeping grandeur. The striking use of Steadicam creates a sense of immersion, as if we ourselves are winding our way through the train. We feel the weight of quiet, mundane moments, while also eavesdropping on the bitter arguments, passionate declarations, and explosive revelations. Melodrama swells up from ordinary moments of vérité realism, as it springs from comedy in All About My Mother. The camera’s lyricism frequently conveys the sense of choreography that Elsaesser finds in the traditional family melodrama, as when the wandering camera suddenly arcs to capture a fleeting expression of repressed longing or heartbreak. François watches with a kind of blank melancholy as he sees Bruno and Louis gazing at each other with a smoldering desire that they barely try to conceal. It’s a momentary pulse or swell of feeling, swiftly carried away by the constant flow of chatter, reminiscences, and complaints. 

Chéreau has little time for the contained pressure or tight frames of the Sirkian melodrama; his camera is constantly on the move, following operatic monologues and wild gestures as characters circle around each other, blowing up bonds, and then, humbled, trying to patch them together again. When the train stops and the heartbroken Louis runs away, Chéreau loosens the repressed restraint of the traditional family melodrama in freewheeling cinematic style. The scene is set to Jeff Buckley’s “Mojo Pin,” a song about romantic longing and craving heroin. François and Bruno, both speaking in riddles, discuss Jean-Baptiste’s art in terms of butchery and trickery—barely concealing their acknowledgement that he used them both, and that Bruno is still hurt by François ending their affair. Tight jump cuts join and separate them; they do not touch each other. The camera cuts loose when the scene turns to a confrontation between Jean-Marie and Claire; the music swells as Jean-Marie runs toward her, the camera following. When Claire, pushed over the edge by Jean-Marie’s rejection, starts pounding him with her fists and calling him a “wimp,” handheld footage and wide shots capture the convulsions of her frustrated, wildly expressive body as Jean-Marie and a friend try to restrain her. The contrast between the tightly controlled and wildly emotive parts of the scene intensifies the melodramatic outburst, and the big reveal when Jean-Marie learns that Claire is pregnant. It’s also a stark illustration of both the fault lines and tight proximity of the chosen family. It visually separates the gay men and the heterosexual couple, while also emphasizing how much everyone is in everybody else’s business as François and Bruno witness Claire’s outburst in stunned silence. 

Chéreau takes an even freer hand once everyone arrives in the crumbling country of Jean-Baptiste’s family of origin. To the horror of his siblings and cousins, the chosen family grows increasingly combative, as accusations of sycophancy and betrayal erupt into major conflicts. 

When he was not making movies, Chéreau was a celebrated director of theater and opera, noted for a dramatic emphasis on bodily expression. In an interview for the book Transversales, he said that all his directing, regardless of medium, was focused on rhythm and the body, in a style he called “animalistic and very physical, naturalistic and totally psychological.” The wild swings of the camera during the film’s tirades makes characters circle and pounce and shout as they inch toward the truth—that Jean-Baptiste enjoyed pitting them against one another, and that they were all happy to play along. The loose but intense rhythms of the camera put us in a state of perpetual engagement. We miss nothing, seeing both the dark and the light of these characters. There are fleeting moments where we seem in contact with their very souls. As we ride their emotional waves, our raw proximity to them makes us—as in all good melodrama—sympathetic to their overblown emotional outbursts. We recognize in their histrionic behavior fundamental human longings and follies. 

In the aftermath of this melodramatic climax, everyone treads through the wreckage. The fights blow over into a spirit of play, as the chosen family gathers when Claire and Viviane attempt to make French toast in the Emmerich family’s massive kitchen. The scene has an almost Almodóvarian bawdy conviviality; here again, the trans woman talks openly about her hormones and gender-affirming surgery. Viviane is played by a cisgender male actor, the startlingly beautiful Vincent Perez. Perez gives Viviane a passionate soul and a deeply moral core; like Agrado, she’s the strongest and most centered character in the film. But it’s another example of why these performances are so distracting today, because it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between Viviane’s authentic hyper-femme presentation and Perez’s off-the-top pantomime of femininity. Still, the scene captures a sense of camaraderie, as if an emotional equilibrium has been restored. 

But the chosen family is disintegrating. Claire and Jean-Marie tentatively reconcile. Louis calls François and proposes living in a throuple with Bruno. “We could bring him up together,” Louis suggests, hoping to make their lives more “inventive.” But François rejects this overlap between romantic and parental love, sure that he doesn’t want children of any kind. As he and Louis have a long, tender breakup over the phone, we sense the inevitability of coupling, and also a desire for more traditionally heteronormative ties that remain impossible—or something close to them that’s yet to be imagined or defined. In the kitchen, Viviane talks about her fantasy of being a baker’s wife. The others scoff at her desire to be married; only the cynical François stands up for her. “Rituals are essential,” he says. “To commit before witnesses is essential.” He declares the necessity of something like marriage. (François is played by Pascal Greggory, Chéreau’s partner of many years.) For François, a man who cheated on his partner in a quasi-incestuous and particularly dangerous manner, this is a melodramatically thwarted and perverse desire. Earlier, François was rankled when someone called Louis his fiancé. It’s not the right word, they both agree, but François wants some other term. “How would you describe our bonds?” he asks. There is no answer.

At the end of the film, François gives up his lover and drives Bruno to reunite with Louis. Like the melodramatic heroines who sacrifice their lovers, he’s left alone, watching them through the window as they embrace. We last see him in a high overhead shot, walking through the lanes of the enormous cemetery where his mentor has been buried. Life walks amongst death, but what happens next seems melancholically unclear.

In his book French Queer Cinema, Nick Rees-Roberts wrote that Those Who Love Me was written at a moment of melodramatic reprieve in the AIDS crisis. The film, as well as All About My Mother, was made just as antiretroviral medications were first widely available in Europe. In queer communities (and in allied straight communities that suffered from addiction) where death had seemed certain, now there was the possibility of new life. New life means different things in each film. In All About My Mother, baby Esteban, orphaned by HIV, is a “miracle” child who’s beaten the disease. He also gives new life to Manuela, who’s grieving the loss of her biological son. It’s implied that he’ll be raised close to the chosen family of women that Manuela has gathered around her. It’s a story of cathartic joy after terrible pain. In Those Who Love Me, the place of the chosen family in this promise of new life is more ambivalent and profoundly confusing. At Jean-Baptiste’s burial, Jean-Marie (possibly high) gives a particularly nasty speech. “He didn’t want to be a father,” Jean-Marie says of Jean-Baptiste. “I wonder if anyone wants to be a father…He hated families. He knew they stink of death and dirty tricks.” Speaking for the dead Jean-Baptiste—and knowing that Claire is pregnant with his child—Jean-Marie seems to want both his biological and chosen families to end. 

Yet unusual and unpredictable bonds keep emerging. There’s a scene—sweet but strange—where Viviane’s uncle Lucien (her dead father’s twin brother) helps her try on shoes (overstock from the family’s business) in the attic. It’s unclear whether Lucien knows that the woman he’s helping into sexy red pumps is his niece. “You’re very handsome,” Viviane tells the man who has the same face as the father who violently rejected her after her transition. “You have real inner beauty.” Lucien calls her “bitchingly refreshing.” Both get something vital out of the interaction. Viviane receives affirmation (and even physical admiration) from a father figure who’s almost like the real thing. Lucien, on the other hand, needs to be a father again: he has unsparingly accepted the mistakes he made taking care of his mentally ill wife, and how that alienated him from his son, Jean-Marie. But raw wounds ooze just beneath his patina of fatalism, a roiling tension brought out beautifully by the performance of the late Jean-Louis Trintignant. Both Perez and Trintignant play the scene with an infectious, sly warmth. Sparks fly, and the fire warms them both: everything is played slightly winkingly, and you’re always wondering how much Lucien is aware of the meaning behind this flirty, slightly fetishistic playacting. But it’s not the kind of scene you put in a film, or play so tenderly, if you don’t believe in the power of queer and sexually ambiguous bonds as meaningful, generative, and enduring. Here, it’s almost a queer path to the renewal of the equally fractured biological family, through the opportunity to reassume old roles via very unconventional forms of play.    

“I’m against death,” Viviane later tells Bruno as he prepares to start a relationship with Louis, despite his anxieties about being rejected because of his HIV status. (Her chosen name carries these connotations: lively, living). It’s almost a benediction from the woman who has buried her old identity with her father’s body, and whose transition symbolizes the promise of new life. (In both films, the trans woman as figure or giver of redemption is melodramatically rich, but not without some paternalistic undertones.) Being against death still means that you have to figure out what life is, and how and with whom you’re going to live it. For some characters, the promise of a reprieve from death means soul-shaking questions about what shape this new life can take. For all of Those Who Love Me’s melancholy and uncertainty, it still shares some of All About My Mother’s innate faith in joy. No door closes without another, freaky window opening. “Loving people means putting up with their shit,” Jean-Baptiste had said. “When there’s trouble, you know if it’s real.” In a chosen family melodrama, the constant trouble, the incredible variety of shit to put up with, leads to remarkable stories, and dazzlingly beautiful, emotionally sweeping catharsis that moves us while making us think.