Well, I’m not going to pretend to understand The Ballad of the Sad Café. It’s actually kind of interesting, and I stuck with it pretty much all the way. Part of the reason I stuck with it though is I hoped there would be developments that retroactively made sense of the things people were doing and saying that certainly didn’t make sense (to me) earlier in the movie. Alas, no such luck.
It’s not one of those movies where it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, or to know what’s happening. I’m sure there are a few details I missed, but for the most part I always knew who was doing what, but all too often, especially in the second half, I had no clue why.
It takes place in 1932 in rural Georgia. The protagonist, Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave, looking for all the world like a male version of David Bowie), is a middle-aged woman who dispenses moonshine and folk remedies at her home/general store. Years earlier she’d gotten married to a guy, and angrily thrown him out of the house on their wedding night, for reasons left unexplained. (Or maybe it’s explained and I missed it.) He begs and demands to come back, she humiliates him (still for no apparent reason), he gets frustrated and goes on a crime spree, he evidently kills somebody, and he ends up in prison for a while.
One day a dwarf arrives in town, and announces he’s Miss Amelia’s cousin. She takes him in. He talks her into converting the store into a café or saloon where people can drink and socialize. It becomes a big hit in town.
He plays the clown around people who would otherwise mistreat him, and so the townspeople decide he’s OK. Miss Amelia especially takes to him, and they become friends. He’s clearly got some issues, or some secrets, as he is afraid of the dark, and becomes traumatized and cries easily.
Then the husband returns from prison. Miss Amelia wants nothing to do with him. The dwarf is scared of him, and presumably concerned that the good thing he’s got going with Miss Amelia—a roof over his head, a friendship with her (maybe heading for more?), a cool place to hang out where he can hold court and people like him—may be threatened.
The husband is now more of a surly bad guy than he’d been earlier. He openly abuses the dwarf.
From here I really have no clue why people do what they do. Especially why the dwarf does what he does. Instead of helping Miss Amelia get rid of the husband, he ends up apparently siding with the husband.
As puzzling as anything is the very fact that no one in the movie seems puzzled why he has turned against Miss Amelia and is trying to become some sort of sidekick to the guy who beats him up.
Is he pretending to suck up to him so he can get close enough to him to do some damage? Do they actually know each other from the past and are engaged in some kind of ruse? (Is he even really Miss Amelia’s cousin?)
The best I could come up with—and it’s not very plausible—is the dwarf is a lot more cold and calculating than he comes across, and he’s just trying to pick a winner. Maybe he thinks the husband is going to win Miss Amelia back anyway, or take over the café, or dominate the town through criminal violence or something, and he’s best off trying to ingratiate himself with him.
Though you’d think at the very least, unless he’s some kind of psychopath or something, that he’d have some hesitation, some guilt about blatantly betraying Miss Amelia. He even takes to mocking her behind her back to amuse the husband.
Then in reading about the movie afterward I came across several references to the dwarf being in love with the husband.
So it’s all some kind of homosexual crush? I don’t see it, but I suppose it’s no more nonsensical than anything I can come up with to explain his behavior.
Mostly I like the feel of this movie. I like the characters, including the lesser characters. I like the dialogue. I like the atmosphere of Southern rural poverty. I like the way the relationship was developing between Miss Amelia and the dwarf.
Not that it feels realistic. Even before people start doing things for no discernible motive, it has that artificiality of a filmed play (it was based on a play, which was based on a novella by Carson McCullers), where people talk and act more like characters than people.
But I didn’t find that too off-putting. As I noted above, I stuck with this movie and was genuinely interested in trying to figure it out.
But in the end, too much is inexplicable. The Ballad of the Sad Café is the kind of movie I’ll probably think about and remember longer than I do the average movie I see, but I still have to give it a thumbs down for not making sense.