Before The Sheik: Rudolph Valentino and Sexual Melancholia

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Once he was cast as the powerful, yet sexually-on-display Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik (George Melford, 1921), Rudolph Valentino rose to super-stardom, the bearer of a conflicted image defined by a fragmented patriarchal discourse. The enduring resonance of the ‘Sheik’ identification, combined with a lack of critical attention to Valentino’s performance, have obscured the different qualities he projected in earlier leading roles, at the dawn of his star trajectory. This paper focuses on Valentino’s three other surviving films from 1921, which preceded The Sheik in rapid succession. It argues that here Valentino’s narrative roles, and most especially his performance, are increasingly defined by a sense of loss, powerlessness, and lack of control, informing his predominantly erotic function on screen. Drawing on the work of Leo Bersani and Sigmund Freud, this paper highlights how a key strand of Valentino’s performance suggests the body’s failure to control and connect with the world beyond the Self. In an expression of sexual melancholia, Valentino’s intensity of desire, mourning, and pain marks his physical presence, constructing an erotic identity that attempts yet always fails to defer loss. In contrast with his ‘sexual menace’ image, cristallised by the Sheik persona and tempered by his ambivalent relation to the gaze, in these earlier films Valentino provides a different antidote to patriarchal brutality, embodying the essentially melancholic nature of erotic experience.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFilm International
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2015


  • Rudolph Valentino
  • Sexual melancholia
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Leo Bersani
  • Camille
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
  • The Conquering Power
  • The Sheik


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