Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This strange little item is another atypical film from the Merchant/Ivory collection, an adaptation
of a story by Carson McCullers filtered through a stage version by Edward Albee. Backward southern
towns have provided a background for bizarre tales since long before William Faulkner, but The
Ballad of the Sad Café takes an uncompromising view of love as a bitter feud.
Landlord, farmer and moonshiner Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave) works her tiny
community by day and sells it liquor by night. She grows herbs to aid in ministering to
the sick, but by and large is silent and hostile to the townspeople. Then a hunchbacked dwarf claiming to be her
Cousin Lymon shows up (Cork Hubbert), and she accepts him when he claims to be kin. An
entertaining fellow and a lively influence, Lymon helps her open a café on the
first floor of her house, already a gathering spot. All is well until Marvin Lacy (Keith Carradine)
returns from prison: Miss Amelia married Marvin, took his land and rejected him several years back.
She's no happier to see Marvin now then she was before, but Marvin has plans to make things
different this time.
All is normal in this quiet corner of the deep south. The sharecroppers work like dogs only
to spend their pay on Miss Amelia's homemade booze. Miss Amelia has the only good life going,
and when not taking care of the sick remains an aloof loner. The locals choose her porch to hang
out on - there's nothing to do. When the odd little man Cousin Lymon shows up she accepts
him immediately, and her neighbors soon find him an entertaining little cuss, performing songs
and telling jokes. He's just as abusive toward the black field hands, though. Soon the café is
a going concern, and people are even wearing their best clothes to go there.
Miss Amelia is hard to forget. The tall, gaunt Vanessa Redgrave wears men's work clothing and has a
scruffy short haircut - she looks a lot like David Bowie. She wades through what looks like a
real swamp (with real snakes) to get to her hidden moonshine still ... it's an arresting performance,
to say the least.
With the mysterious lack of explanation found only in cryptic short stories, The Ballad
of the Sad Café adds another layer to its already strange relationships. News that
husband Marvin is coming home gets a hostile reception from Miss Amelia, and when he shows up on
the back of a truck carrying his guitar we get a partially illuminating flashback showing how
she married him and took his property, but threw him out on their wedding night. Marvin's
understandably upset now, but prefers to simmer moodily on the sidelines, throwing his weight around
in the café.
The character chemistry becomes even stranger in the final act. Nobody discusses exactly why, but
Marvin and Cousin Lyman slowly draw together against Miss Amelia. The unhappy marriage tiff, if
it can be called that, results in a grueling public boxing match between husband and wife in which
Amelia is beaten up and reduced to sobbing tears. It's the first time she's shown the
slightest sign of weakness, and it's a disturbing sight.
As if enforcing an unwritten rule that females need to be dominated, the flawed males (cripple and jailbird)
Marvin and Lymon gang up against Amelia for a finish that ends
The Ballad of the Sad Café on a note of cruel, poetic balance. Describing
the odd tone and characterizations is a futile task - they're just interesting enough to keep
the quirky film from becoming unpleasant. The boxing scene is particularly believable but hard
to put into words ... I've seen it, and still can't imagine Redgrave's Guinivere in a bloody
fistfight like this one.
Contributing to the film in a small role is Rod Steiger, fairly restrained as a local preacher without a clue
as to Miss Amelia's motives. An almost unrecognizable Austin Pendleton is a country lawyer.
Production values are at the Merchant-Ivory team's usual high standard, with Walter Lassally's cinematography
looking particularly good.
Home Vision's DVD of The Ballad of the Sad Café is presented in a flawless enhanced
transfer with Richard Robbins' spare score coming across well in stereo. The picture becomes a
little less puzzling with the commentary by director Simon Callow, who is much better known as an
actor. He talks about Vanessa Redgrave suddenly taking a pair of shears to her hair to create the proper look
for the eccentric Amelia. You can sense the general commitment to the film in Callow's words - everyone involved
seems to think that Carson McCullers' original story is a masterpiece.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ballad of the Sad Café rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: audio commentary by director Simon Callow
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 23, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson