Melodrama: The Unloved Genre
There are only a few categories of film that can be guaranteed to draw fire from critics. Satires, westerns, musicals – and melodramas. This last one has long been out of favour. Historically, a melodrama was a serious play interspersed with music accompanying the action. Now it means a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.
Which sounds like the last multiplex blockbuster you saw, or anything by Michael Bay. While melodrama can thrill, it usually has no other purpose but to entertain through the use of sensation.
It’s associated with a particular brand of Victorian declamatory acting, as in ‘Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls’ and ‘Maria Marten – or The Murders in the Red Barn’.
It’s a term that could be applied to almost anything that comes to be regarded as unsophisticated. These days the term is nearly always pejorative. It suggests a lack of subtlety and poor character development. It’s one of the main genres used in massively popular Latin American TV serials.
Melodrama teeters into camp because it deals with big emotions. ‘East Enders’ moved from neo-realism to melodrama, meaning that now every storyline has to feature a death or an explosion. But it’s hard not to think of many Victorian novels as melodramas, especially Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘East Lynne’ by Ellen Wood.
Popular again after WWII in films by Douglas Sirk and books by Grace Metalious, melodrama has lately undergone a revival in films from Fassbinder and Todd Haynes. Australia is rather good at it, with books like ‘Careful He Might Hear You’ and films like ‘The Dressmaker’. In the former a cold-hearted stepmother wrenches a child away from a loving family and suffers a miserable fate. In the latter, Kate Winslet returns to her old hometown in a slutty red dress and burns the whole place down. Of course the critics detest most melodrama because it’s about excess, not reticence.
Ken Russell’s entire career was based on melodrama. Watching ‘The Music Lovers’, his life story of Tchaikowsky, our emotions are heightened by excessive, lurid and frequently absurd imagery – but Russell was a passionate music lover himself, and his films were often attempts to define exhilaration , one of our chief responses to music. The critics still clutch their handkerchiefs to their noses when considering Russell, but he remains one of the few British directors who truly understood film while the rest were doing their best to avoid the creation of powerful imagery.
The critics adore ‘The Shape of Water’ (and rightly so; its intricacies reveal themselves on subsequent viewings) but detested the film ‘Brimstone’ a few months ago. At least, US critics did – the UK ones have been much more appreciative, and it’s a hit with audiences. ‘Brimstone’s is worth looking at because it combines melodramatic outrage and feminism, but director Martin Koolhoven has made his life especially difficult by also making this the world’s first Dutch western and by publicly saying that he has no interest at all in working in Hollywood.
‘Brimstone’s villain is insanely villainous and its heroine put-upon beyond all endurance. It has an epic sweep and a broad story arc that takes in every western cliché going. But why shouldn’t we consider the use of the broad gestures, non-naturalistic dialogue and the sweeping, wild use of colour and sound to convey something more than space operas? It has always worked (to a point) in films by the undisciplined Quentin Tarantino.
As for novels, the New York Times bestseller list is full of melodramas tastefully reimagined as multi-generational novels of discreet but overwhelming emotions. US bestsellers are often beautifully written but suffocating. At the other end of the scale, the pulp novels of the seventies and eighties were often poorly written but once in a while were capable of producing masterpieces. Many of these wildly imaginative leaps in which ambitious creeps murder heiresses and devils possess children are back in fashion.
When you’re finding out what you like to read, it’s very important not to become a book snob; read anything and everything, and set it down as soon as it bores you. I became a long-time fan of melodrama and am currently working on writing one, so we’ll see what happens…