The Gainsborough melodramas released in the 1940s were hugely popular with British audiences and mocked by critics. These films took place in dramatic period settings, with actresses in gorgeous, ornate costumes and hats, and sensational plots centered around women transgressing social boundaries, falling in love with rogues, thieves, highwaymen, and Heathcliff-like monsters, and even tasting the forbidden pleasures and pains of murder and robbery themselves in some cases. This focus on women's lives, with a particular emphasis on sexual autonomy or lack thereof, make these films fascinating for contemporary viewers.
Madonna of the Seven Moons, directed by Arthur Crabtree who had previously been a Gainsborough cinematographer, has been described by some as lurid, by others as stuffy, but I'd say both camps - the sensation-seekers who watch the pre-code pictures to get a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich's breasts and the oh-so-cool types who disdain any show of emotion that isn't strictly justified by the most gritty forms of trauma as overblown - are projecting their own understandings of what melodramas are on to a film that delves into what it means to be a woman through a character who is both Madonna and whore, but then again, neither.
In the opening scene, a pig-tailed Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) in her convent school uniform is picking flowers in a field. A man approaches her and begins to undo his belt. A close-up shows her terrified face as she runs from him; the shot fades to black. In the next shot, she cowers in her room, in agony. This rape scene is all the more devastating for eclipsing the rape itself and instead centering the viewer's attention on Maddalena's anguish. Even by the end of the film, no one, not even the physician who attends her, ever finds out about this rape. It remains an unspoken secret with fateful consequences, but remarkably, given the film's religious values, Maddalena is framed as completely innocent, both before and after the fact. This sexual trauma profoundly affects her life, but it doesn't make her guilty - on the contrary, it absolves her later of a violent act that prevents the same trauma from occurring to another young girl.
However, this is not a movie about a woman surviving rape and becoming empowered. Instead, Maddalena, a good Catholic girl, agrees to marry the man her father has chosen for her, Giuseppe (John Stuart), and it turns out to be a good marriage in the conventional sense - not a passionate love affair, but a stable, caring relationship largely devoid of strong emotion. Her fervent religiosity as much as her extreme sensitivity mark her as a Madonna figure; she spends her life in good works. Her husband goes so far as to teasingly call her a saint. When her daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) returns from an English finishing school with an English diplomat boyfriend (Alan Haines, a puppyish and much less handsome David Niven look-alike) and some decidedly not convent-approved lingerie, Maddalena becomes increasingly agitated. After a chance encounter with a "dancer" (that is, a gigolo, played by Peter Glenville) with his eye on the pretty, pert, and still somewhat innocent Angela, Maddalena faints. When she wakes, there is a strange glimmer in her eye. She rises, draws a symbol of seven moons on the mirror with lipstick, and runs from the house with the contents of her jewelbox in her handkerchief. Maddalena's transformation is a literal one: she becomes Rosanna, a sultry, fiery, and sticky-fingered creature whose lover, Nino (Stewart Granger), is a thief with more than a little sex appeal. These two women in the same body are living two lives that collide and shatter, leaving hearts broken, bodies bleeding, and souls won back to God.
A pat psychological explanation is given for Maddalena's condition by family friend and doctor Ackroyd (Reginald Tate). He surmises that some trauma in childhood caused a rupture in Maddalena's psyche, splitting her personality. When anxiety and pain threaten to become too great, she takes refuge in the second personality, running from her sumptuous palazzo, devoted husband, and philanthropic works. However, no one in the film ever discovers what trauma wreaked such havoc. Only we, the viewers, know why Maddalena split into Madonna and whore.
At first glance, this dichotomy seems like one more tiresome iteration of the usual scenario, one where the whore must be destroyed and the Madonna martyred, but because the audience knows that it was a brutal rape that caused the psychological split, a different interpretation emerges. Sexual trauma forces Maddalena to repress her sensuality and so she becomes a near saint, but here's the trick: the film refuses to let Maddalena deny her sexuality. It's there within her, lurking whenever emotion overflows its boundaries. The whore personality, the underworld creature ready to knife her rival, permits Maddalena-reborn-Rosanna to engage in a smoldering romantic affair. She and Nino both during the course of the film devour pieces of fruit, letting the juice drip down their faces; while the demure Maddalena could never take such sensual pleasure in her food, the earthy Rosanna can. The character is torn between the body she can enjoy and the body that has been despoiled, a free expression of her desires and the utter repression of even the slightest reminder of physical feeling. The true villain in the film is not the murderous impulses of the human Id, nor Nino, the petty criminal, nor sex for the fun of it: the villain is rape and any man who attempts it. If Maddalena's ultimate salvation is found in God, it's in a conception of God as intensely forgiving and understanding.
Madonna of the Seven Moons is a melodrama in the true sense of the term: it is a story about fairly ordinary people swept up into tragedy by circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to see how a film that delineates such an exacting polemic against rape, while still portraying consensual sex as happy, romantic, and fulfilling, could be called lurid, and even more bizarre to call it stuffy. The psychology may strike the modern viewer as fairly antiquated, especially since split personalities in particular have become such a cliche of both weepies and thrillers, but in this case, a fairly simplistic idea of psychic rupture allows Crabtree, screenwriter Roland Pertwee, and star Phyllis Calvert to excavate and complicate the Madonna-whore dichotomy in a world where sexual violence against women is a fact of life. They accomplish this without rejecting Catholicism for blasphemy or vice versa. Sexual innocence is redefined: Maddalena's loss of virginity makes her no less good, and not even her extra-marital affair, pursued by Rosanna, makes her less good. Instead, sexual evil is staunchly defined as abuse, as one person taking another by force. Madonna of the Seven Moons lets us have our melodramatic cake and eat it, progressive sexual politics and all, too.