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What is melodrama in film?

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One of the objectives of films is to inspire and invoke or induce emotions in their audience. But there are films that have a reputation for going over the top sentimental, persuading audiences to become emotionally charged and attached in irrational ways. Let’s talk about melodramas!

Let's explore the melodrama definition, where it came from, and why it’s such a controversial and talked about sub-type of film.

Woman watching movie, crying.

What is melodrama in film?

Melodrama is a sub-genre of drama films that involve tremendously sensational scenes and storylines. The term melodrama comes from the Greek words “melos” and “drama”, which means music and action, respectively. It aims to play with the viewer’s emotions, triggering extreme feelings by featuring stereotyped characters. Instead of just inducing a normal level of emotion, it exaggerates it. So joy becomes complete happiness, sadness becomes overwhelming loneliness, triumph becomes an electrifying victory, death or a breakup becomes a paralyzing loss, and a setback becomes a staggering defeat. 

Origins of melodrama sub-genre

In old melodramatic works, silent films used music to signal an emotion-provoking scene, accompanies by overemphasized actions to get the audience on board. To make the scenes even more sensational, some moments or events in the film involve impossible or fictional elements.

This type of theatrical literature emerged from France during the early 19th century. Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau invented melodrama with his most influential dramatic work called Pygmalion.

Drama vs melodrama

People often mistake drama for melodrama and the other way around. It’s important to understand that these are two different things. Although slightly relative, since melodrama is a sub-type of drama, there’s a significant difference between the two.

Drama, in the context of film, is a state, series of events, or situation that involves intense or interesting conflicts of forces. The screenplays often focus on conflict and struggle. As if without them, the characters are not interesting and there’s almost no story to tell.

The one significant difference between drama and melodrama is that the former involves reality-based situations, stories, and characters, while the latter involves exaggerated and extravagant versions of those. Melodrama is an enhanced version of drama, accentuating plots and physical actions for extra effect.

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Characteristics of melodramatic films

The most basic features of melodrama are its intensely expressive style and its concern with personal relationships, be it with a couple, siblings, family members, or friends. They involve heart-tugging and tear-jerking plots about failed romances, toxic friendships, strained family relationships, tragedies, terminal illnesses, and death.

Doctor comforting crying woman

Melodrama films may also involve emotional and physical hardships in societies and communities. Such movies may deal with heroic leads and evil protagonists, outrageous social pressures, threats, unwavering endurance, steadfast bravery, and sacrificial acts.

Thanks to a variety of video production and editing techniques, filmmakers can now use them to enhance dramatic and cinematic scenes, rather than just rely on facial expressions and physical actions. Melodrama films could benefit a lot of B-roll footage to boost emotional effects even without dialogues.

Popular techniques also include parallel editing for building excitement or suspense and J-cuts and L-cuts for dramatic placements of emotion-provoking music.

When it comes to the characters, melodramatic screenplays often feature stock characters. These are people who represent a type of person, something the audience can relate to. They're often based on cliches or social prejudices. There’s the smart girl with eyeglasses whose focus is her studies and her standing in the academe, the blonde girl who looks flawlessly gorgeous but quite weak in the brain department, the popular jock with many girlfriends yet manages to make other girls swoon, or the thin nerdy guy who would rather play video games than flirt with girls.

Types of melodramas

There are certain themes that are quite common in melodramatic movies. Silent melodramas, like Frank Powell’s A Fool There Was (1915), are melodramas that relied heavily on facial expressions and gestures. 

Melodramatic stories of fall and liberated women, like Madame X (1920), features tough, struggling, or sinful women who go through tremendous amounts of suffering, rejections, or even death.

The “weepies” or “chick flicks” as they came to be known are melodramas that focused on strong female characters, whether they're heroines or antagonists. The themes often revolved around infidelity, family crisis, or marital issues, where the women are the leading actors.

Maternal melodramas often feature selfless and loving figures who go through hardships and perform sacrificial acts that invoke emotions. Mothers deal with social pressures, scandals, financial issues, or moral lapses for the sake of their children.

Post-war melodramatic films have no plot. They are simply movies created and released after the war. Although, based on popular releases during that period, most films feature powerful and liberated women, like the musical melodramatic film Humoresque (1946), which showcases Joan Crawford’s performance as a wealthy society patroness who seeks revenge against a struggling violinist.

Director Douglas Sirk leads the melodrama trend in the 1950s with his romantic melodramas in super-saturated technicolor films. During this period, there was censorship on sexual transgressions, psycho-sexual disorders, illegitimacy, abuse, abortion, and marital affairs. So, filmmakers had to show such scenes without being explicit. As a result, the scenes were brought to the screen but must be viewed with irony to discover their hidden meanings.

Disaster melodramas are sensational films that revolve around events around characters who are trying to escape or survive man-made or natural disasters like earthquakes, storms, plane crashes, or chemical spills. One of the most popular films with this theme is Independence Day (1996).

Melodramatic movies

This sub-genre of drama has been a subject for film studies because it’s primarily associated with pop culture. Melodramas remain to be entertaining and highly popular today but some critics are not very fond of them.

The most common reasons are its inclination to female leads or female-inspired situations and plots that often involve sex, race, class, and gender conflicts.

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