Garry Gillard > writing > Ten Types of Australian Film > Melodrama

Chapter 5: Melodrama

All Hollywood films, taking this large view, require what [Peter] Brooks considers essential to melodrama, namely “a social order to be purged, a set of ethical imperatives to be made clear”. 1

Melodrama is a special case. It is like a super-genre, in the sense in which film noir is a sub-genre. Whereas “noir” is a recent invention and has become a way of describing certain stylistic aspects of films which may be generically crime or fantasy or science-fiction or whatever, “melodrama” is a term which (taken from the theatre) has been used in the film industry since the beginnings, and applied to a wide variety of types of film—before there was screen “theory”. The term was originally quite specifically applied to a kind of drama in which the action, whether spoken or acted in dumb show, was accompanied by music, to underline or emphasise the drama: to increase the emotional response of the audience. The “melo” is obviously related to “melody”, ie. music. But when critics began to write about films, it was a convenient word to apply to many of them, because it had by then mostly lost its “music” connotations, but kept the “emotional response” part of its meaning. And of course a great many types of films can be seen as being designed to get the maximum reaction from audiences, particularly the overt kind of reaction that can actually be observed, in the form of tears, say. And such responses can be elicited by films of many kinds.

In the early days of the cinema, melodrama meant a subordination of character development to plots in which there were exciting events, thrills and fears, chance happenings, coincidences, missed meetings, sudden conversions, last-minute rescues and revelations, and deus ex machina endings. 2 There was a clear delineation of good and evil, with heroes and villains and maidens in need of rescue. It is easy to see how the term could and did easily become pejorative, and the adjective “melodramatic” applied to any story that relied on improbable events and/or sensational action, rather than, say, an investigation of human nature. The term is also applied to aspects of style, particularly with regard to acting, where this is perceived as being exaggerated, too emotional, “over the top”. It could also be used to describe cinematographic style, where there is perceived over-use of fast camera movement: flash zooms or whip pans; and style in editing, with too many jump cuts (where frames are removed, so that the action proceeds in perceived jumps).

The history and range of melodrama are too vast for me to give an account of it in a few paragraphs, so I’ll refer you elsewhere. 3 And in any case, I want to concentrate on one type of melodrama, in the train of one of the most influential articles on the subject, Thomas Elsaesser’s “Tales of sound and fury: observations on the family melodrama”—as I believe this will throw most light on the nature of melodrama in Australia. By the time Elsaesser published his piece in a 1972 special issue on melodrama of a small independent film journal, Monogram, the meaning of the term had shifted to refer to a critique of contemporary life. Elsaesser’s argument, in Steve Neale’s words is

that certain tendencies, genres and directors in Hollywood—in particular the Hollywood of the late studio era ...—deployed form, style and rhythm, camera movement, colour and mise-en-scene not only to elaborate themes and issues specific to the films themselves but also to address contemporary social and ideological issues, and in doing so to expose the inadequacies of the affirmative liberal culture, of the corporate, consumerist and domestically oriented cultural ethos, prevalent at the time the films were made.4

Elsaesser and the people who followed him were interested in films by directors like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli and a canon of “family melodramas” concerned with oedipal struggle, class and ideology. A perhaps even more influential writer, Laura Mulvey, led to the identification of melodrama with the representation of the domestic sphere and the family.5 This creates a problem for me in the organisation of this book, as it follows that melodrama comes close to identity with the woman’s film, which I treat separately in the next chapter. I shall deal with the problem in that chapter, where I’ll use a narrow notion of the woman’s film as being one which both represents women’s concerns in being of interest to a female audience and also shows aspects of the lives of women.

In this chapter, I’ll look at Australian feature films which in effect examine Australian families,6 exposing conflicts and contradictions, and that “radical ambiguity” which Elsaesser finds is attached to the film melodrama, which “would appear to function either subversively or as escapism—categories that are always relative to the given historical and social context”.7 I’ll suggest that both escapism and subversion function to destabilise and restabilise family structures, sometimes ambiguously appearing superficially to be doing the one while more globally doing the other.

The Sum of Us (Geoff Burton & Kevin Dowling, 1994) is a melodrama about a family which appears most unusual at first sight. Having begun as the conventional nuclear family of mother, father Harry (Jack Thompson) and son Jeff (Russell Crowe), it has been changed before the plot of the film begins by the death of the (unnamed and unseen) mother into a family of two: a heterosexual father who has single-handedly raised a now adult son who has turned out to be gay. One of the main aims of the film (and the play that preceded it) is obviously to raise the issue of homosexuality and to propose that it is an unremarkable part of everyday life. Not only is Jeff gay, but so also is his lesbian grandmother, who turns to her friend Mary for intimate companionship after her husband dies. Harry and Jeff have an extremely loving relationship as father and son, though Harry is resolutely heterosexual and even occasionally hopes that his son might find an interest in women after all. The climax of the plot comes when Joyce, Harry’s new love interest and potential second wife, finds out by accident—and before she has met him—that Jeff is gay. She chooses to see this as a “lie” that Harry has in effect told her, by not disclosing this, but she also expresses revulsion and disgust at this sexual preference. This comes after the film has spent an hour establishing clearly that Jeff, although he has a few ordinary faults and foibles, is a fundamentally admirable person, the salt of the earth. So Joyce’s position is clearly the wrong one.

However, the question of sexual orientation is not the only issue raised by the film: it also problematises the nature of the family. The nuclear family is destabilised in a number of ways, some of which have already been referred to. Harry’s mother’s husband dies, and she becomes a lesbian, forming a new family with friend Mary. In a flashback to Jeff’s youth, this is shown as a quite successful arrangement, with Gran having plenty of time to look after and play with her several grandchildren. Until, that is, the old women can no longer look after themselves and each other and they are separated, with Gran going to Harry’s brother’s house and Mary going to a home for the aged. So another family is broken up, as shown with heavy pathos, all stops out. Harry often remembers how happy he was with his wife: his reveries are done to camera. (This is an unusual film in that both the main characters are very frequently permitted to do pieces to camera, and also to indicate positions and reactions by facial expressions and gestures.) But then his wife dies. After a long period of time, he finds Joyce (whose name is almost a homophone for “choice”—indicating her status as compromise), through an introduction agency. He gets very close to setting up house with her, having formally proposed marriage, but fails to disclose what she sees as a key fact about his son—and that proto-family is also dissolved. Then, to close off any remaining possibility that Harry might ever create a new family, he has a serious stroke which leaves him unable to care for himself, or even to speak. Meanwhile, Jeff has been trying to set himself up with a partner, but Greg (John Polson) is not sure he is ready, partly because of his own negative family role models, and partly because he has not come out to his parents. When they happen to see him on a float at the Mardi Gras parade, the disclosure comes about by accident (as Jeff’s did to Joyce), and the father orders him to leave the family home forever. So the only conventional family we see (Greg’s) is made up of a completely unreasonable and unloving patriarch, a completely dominated mother, and a son who is ostracised because of his sexuality. Finally, Joyce’s marriage has ended in divorce, leaving her also a single parent. The institution of the family is a disaster area.

However, everything is not as bad as it seems from this plot outline. In fact, if the events I’ve just described are regarded in another light, what can then be seen is a very high valuation of family. The striking thing about the plot, is that, in spite of setback after setback, it repeatedly sets up attempt after attempt to create some kind of family, of whatever kind. Near the end, we see Joyce, after finally meeting Jeff and apparently liking him, express to her daughter what sounds like regret at not entering the relationship with Harry—despite the fact that he is now completely incapacitated. What she actually says is that “There is no fool like an old fool”. This is ambiguous, and could refer mainly to her premature judgment of a young man she had never met. But it could also refer to her having given up prematurely on an opportunity to find happiness with a second husband. We also see that Jeff has adapted, apparently with complete success, to being an almost fulltime carer of his invalid father. They continue to be just as affectionate as before (although much of the expression of Harry’s love is conveyed directly to the audience rather than to Jeff, as he can only indicate “yes” or “no”, with a beeper). And finally, when Jeff and Greg meet again at the very end of the film, there is a strong indication that they are going to try again for not only an intimate but also long-term relationship.

Even if you haven’t seen The Sum of Us, you would have a good idea by now that it is a “tear-jerker”—which, as I’ve suggested, is one of the characteristics of melodrama. Steve Neale has written a paper (from which I’ve quoted previously) on that specific topic, and in it he draws on another writer, Franco Moretti, for a hypothesis about the source of those tears. Moretti writes about

... the different direction one would like to impose on the course of events. This is what makes one cry. Tears are always the product of powerlessness. They presuppose two mutually opposed facts: that is clear how the present state of things should be changed—and that this change is impossible.8

This has clear and broad application to our present text. As I have suggested, The Sum of Us again and again proposes that people should continue or should form long-term commitments in pairs or groups of three, and again and again the plot makes these bondings unviable, possibly resulting (depending on individual viewers) in the kind of reaction mentioned by Moretti. The film does not merely set out to create an intense emotional reaction: such a reaction is to have an ideological direction, tendency, or even intention. This intention is to persuade the viewer not just intellectually but also emotionally to wish strongly for the integrity and continuity of family and family values. So it is finally revealed, while masquerading as a film about difference, unconventionality and moral breakdown, as being in vigorous support of the most conventional and conservative of ethical positions.

In Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) there are no fewer than six couples under examination. Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia) and his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) are the most significant. Leon is a policeman who is shown to be occasionally more violent than is required, not only with criminal suspects, but also to some extent with his own two sons, though they appear to be perfectly pleasant adolescents. He seems to be going through some kind of midlife crisis: he runs to keep fit, although he appears to have a heart condition, and he has started an affair with Jane O’May (Rachael Blake), who is estranged from her husband Pete (Glenn Robbins). Sonja is seeing psychologist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey), who is married to academic John Knox (Geoffrey Rush). Their only child Eleanor has been killed in an unsolved crime, and Valerie has written a book about all this with the child’s name as the title. John is slightly mysterious, as the plot requires, seems unable to recover from Eleanor’s death—unlike Valerie—and may also be in a crisis of midlife. So their marriage is far from blissful. A contrast to these three dysfunctional relationships is provided by the couple who live next door to Jane: Nik and Paula Daniels (Vince Colosimo and Daniella Farinacci). In a somewhat clichéd way, class enters the equation, as they are happy with their messy, sexy life, even though they seem to be less well-off than the other couples. Their happiness is radically changed when Nik is suspected of having killed Valerie.

There are another two couples who would normally be regarded as being peripheral to the main business of this film, but who are pertinent for my purposes in that they represent an extension of the range of possibilities of proto-families. Another of Valerie’s clients is Patrick Phelan (Peter Phelps). He is gay and she feels that his attitude towards her is somewhat threatening, as she tells both her husband and her tape recorder. So he too becomes a suspect—after Valerie disappears and then is found dead—at which point Leon commandeers the tape. He subsequently forces his way into Patrick’s apartment, but instead of the lover he expects to discover, he finds a completely new character: Patrick’s (nameless) lover is played by Lani Tupu, who looks Polynesian or Maori (as the actor’s name also suggests). Perhaps partly because of this unpleasant incursion, it seems by the end of the film as though the lover has given up, not only on Patrick, but perhaps also on homosexuality, as we see him, from Patrick’s point of view across the street, with his wife and children in a restaurant. Patrick is standing in the rain, the water dripping down from his hood, like tears, in a conventional representation of the sorrow he is feeling. It is difficult not to interpret this scene as an affirmation of the heterosexual nuclear family: they are animated, warm, well-lit, while the lonely gay man watches helplessly in his exclusion.

The other proto-couple I see as providing a direct contrast with this one. Leon’s police colleague, Claudia (Leah Purcell), is hopeful of some sort of romantic possibility with an unnamed man. She is not confident, and there has been a setback, but at the denouement she is looking forward to their next meeting. One might wonder why she is in the story at all: to provide a collegial ear for Leon’s confession, perhaps, and also collegial judgement of his unnecessary force. And having been included, her character needs some filling out, and she so given this potential liaison. However, I see her situation, in a structural way, as providing one more position along a continuum of possibilities with regard to the formation and preservation of the family.

The plot concludes with this range of positions, from least to most positive. Pete and Jane’s marriage is over: she has had a disappointment with Leon and seems completely aimless; he is depressed and uncomprehending. John is of course alone, after the death of his wife; but he seems to have been generally alienated anyway. We last see him in his luxurious mountain eyrie, looking sullenly out over the vista, and we can only guess what he might be thinking about: suicide, perhaps. Patrick is also alone, but is not as old as John—and perhaps his commitment to his lover was not as long-term as John’s and Leon’s to their wives. Although he is miserable now, he may be happy again, which is much harder to imagine in John’s case. Jumping to the last position on the spectrum: as I’ve said, Claudia is hopeful of her new romance ... which leaves Leon and Sonja.

There are two final scenes which deal with the ambiguity of the ultimate (as far as the plot goes) situation in their relationship. In the first, Leon plays the tape of Sonja’s consultation with Valerie, from the point where he has left off previously. Valerie was then heard to ask if Sonja still loves Leon: he now listens to her answer. Sitting in his car, he sobs uncontrollably, in a moment of catharsis. The final scene of the film shows the couple dancing together. (Dancing has earlier been established as a motif for relational negotiation.) As there is nothing else in the frame, all that one can attend to is the position of the dancers and their expression—and Celia Cruz’s singing, I suppose. Their eyes are fixed on each other’s, whether evaluating or transacting. They dance slowly from the centre, first to one side of the frame and then over to the other, where the film concludes—and it’s noticeable that Leon is leaning slightly in towards Sonja, while she is leaning slightly away from him. The couple who are the most ambiguous—in terms of their future prospects—end up without any definite new commitment or separation—and with only this slightest of indications as to possible differences in their attitudes (literally) towards each other.

I’ve mentioned the overlap between the topic of this chapter and the next; there is also some common ground between this and the preceding chapter, as many family melodramas will raise social problems. The Sprague family (in The Boys), for example, is almost a social problem in itself. Angel Baby provides an example of the ambivalent under- and over-valuation of the family that I’ve been discussing. Kate and Harry (apparently) lose their lives in the effort of propagation, but their angelic baby lives on and adds value to the established family of Harry’s brother Morris Goodman (Colin Friels) and his wife Louise (Deborra-Lee Furness): note Morris’s family name! In the generation preceding Kate and Harry’s, the family has been seriously undervalued in the father’s incestuous act of forcibly having sex with his daughter Kate. Similar comments could be applied to Lilian’s Story: again there is incestuous rape, and again there is a kind of substitute family—much more metaphorically in this case—when Lilian late in life discovers an old lover, Frank (John Flaus), and sets up camp with him and the pregnant Ruby (Fiona Press).

Another type of film that will have much in common with the family melodrama is the art film, which we’ll look at in more detail in Chapter 11. Some of the films by directors like Paul Cox and Rolf de Heer—partly because they are usually on a small scale and shot in interiors—concern defining events in families—and noticeably the beginnings and ends thereof. In Lonely Hearts (Paul Cox, 1982), for example, Peter (Norman Kaye) and Patricia (Wendy Hughes) meet, as Harry and Joyce do in The Sum of Us, through an introduction agency. The film ends at the point where they appear to be about to commit to a long-term relationship. The film is not very melodramatic in the stylistic sense, as compared, say, to Cox’s film after next, My First Wife (Paul Cox, 1984), in which John Hargreaves is allowed to give a performance of emotional intensity, with all stops out (for which he won the AFI for Best Actor in that year). The other contrast is that this is about the end of a partnership, with Wendy Hughes, as it happens, as Helen, the eponymous first wife. Rolf de Heer’s melodrama about the end of a marriage is The Quiet Room (1996). On this occasion the point of view is that of the unnamed daughter of the marriage, and the focus is the effect on her. This is conveyed both through her acting and her (rather mature) voiceover—which contrasts with the silence (to which the title refers) of her withdrawal from the family which is the mark of the effect on her of the marriage breakdown. The film ends affirmatively for the future of the family (and rather abruptly) with the girl finally speaking, to tell her parents, giving them a picture she has drawn, that “this is how you make me feel”.

Mullet (David Caesar, 2001) is, I suggest, a family melodrama which is only “melodramatic” at a couple of key moments. It’s an underplayed and understated comedy/drama which is at times also subtly comedic. “Mullet” is the nickname of Eddie Moloney (Ben Mendelsohn) and the family in question is his: his father Col (Tony Barry), mother Gwen (Kris McQuade), sister Robbie (Peta Brady) and her partner James (Wayne Blair), whose indigeneity is one of the minor ingredients of the plot. Eddie has left Coollawarra three years ago, without explanation and without contact. Now he’s back, because it’s “where I’m from”. He’s been in Sydney, writing ads and snorting coke, but he’s lost his job, probably because he’s been as irritating to management as we see him being to every one of his friends and family. While he’s been away, the love of his life, Tully (Susie Porter) has married his brother, police officer Peter (Andrew S. Gilbert), because he’s “kind”, she says. Tully waited for years to hear from Eddie, but didn’t, and went for her next best option, the awareness of which is perhaps why she punches him on the jaw at the moment they meet again. When he meets his mother and father again, he finds that they are “not speaking” (again). Another significant person he meets again is Kay (Belinda McClory) the publican’s daughter. She is alone with her father (whom we never see, though he has Bryan Brown’s voice), as her mother has gone off with a poker machine service mechanic. Eddie spends a night in Kay’s bed, but they do not have sex because, according to him, it might have caused a problem when he came in for a beer. He says that having sex is not just sex, it “makes a difference”: he later suggests that the simple fact that he slept with her is meaningful .

So we have a number of dysfunctional families: Kay’s (mother gone), Col and Gwen’s (not speaking), Tully and Peter’s (second best—and now the best is back), Eddie and Kay’s (Eddie won’t take the second step towards commitment, although he takes the first). Even James and Robbie’s relationship with the rest of the family is unsettled because of Eddie’s direct reference to his “inferior” position as a result of his colour—a view shared by Col, though he doesn’t express it to James. However, almost all of these problems have been resolved by the end of the film. Firstly, it looks as though Kay is about to extend her family by the addition of Eddie. This is an inference: the final frame of the film shows Eddie indecisively still parked outside the hotel, but there are a number of indications that he will stay and go in to join Kay. He says he is going to “keep on driving” but only because it seems that everyone wants him to leave—until Kay indicates otherwise: “Not everyone”, she says, in the last line of the film. Although Col and Gwen are playing the game of “not speaking”, there is a solid basis to their relationship. This is revealed by Col in what is probably the longest speech in the film, in a section of dialogue that is important enough to reproduce here in full. Col is cutting wood for the barbecue, when Eddie asks him what “love” is.

Eddie: I don’t get it.
Col: What? You don’t get what?
Eddie: I don’t get it: life, this family, love. Love, I don’t get love.
Col: What would I know about it?
Eddie: Well you must know something about love. You and Mum have been together forever.
Col: Want to know what I know about love? I’ll tell you. Some mornings I wake up next to your mother, and I look at her, and I think, “Who the bloody hell are you?”
Eddie walks away, though his father does not notice.
And there are other mornings when I wake up and I look at her, and I think, “Thank Christ you’re here”. Cos at least I know where I am. It’s about taking the good with the bad. Cos you don’t get one with... (Now he notices Eddie has gone) ... without the other.

Finally, Tully and Peter’s relationship is suddenly placed on the firmest of bases, in the climactic scene and in thoroughly melodramatic style. Peter is telling the rest of the family members at the barbecue that they should leave and why, when his police pistol is fired by Tully. Cut to her: she announces that she is pregnant, and that this is what she wants—and everyone does leave, appropriately paired up (including Eddie and Kay), leaving the expectant couple to their wedded bliss.

This is a film which it is easy to sum up as concerning a dysfunctional member of a dysfunctional family—but a slightly closer look reveals once again the restabilisation of the conventional nuclear family model—but with some quirky Australian tweaking. The tagline of the film sums up not only its plot, but also my argument in this chapter. “Family: can’t live with them, can’t throw them back”.

The words of the title of The Sum of Us refers explicitly to family, to all the generations that precede and contribute to the individual. The three films looked at in any detail in this chapter show, overtly or not, the importance of family, real or symbolic, “nuclear” or extended. What is distinctive about these Australian films is the adaptability, or flexibility, shown by the principal characters in the quest or the desire to achieve membership of a family: they, and the films that contain them, are willing to make any kind of compromise to enter this condition. Recalling Moretti’s words: this is why these films may lead, if they do, to frustration and perhaps tears—it’s because they represent these characters as being in a condition of powerlessness. They present two mutually opposed facts: that is clear how the present state of things should be changed—and that this change is impossible. Family: can’t live with them, can’t throw them back. Achieving a successful and harmonious family is (apparently) impossible—but it is not possible to give up the aspiration to continue in or to re-enter this situation: this is the source of the drama that is the family melodrama.


1 E. Ann Kaplan 1983, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, Methuen, New York & London: 25, quoting Peter Brooks 1976, The Melodramatic Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven & London: 17

2 Steve Neale 1986, “Melodrama and tears”, Screen, 27, 6: 6-23.

3 Steve Neale 2000, “Melodrama and the woman’s film”, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London & New York: 179- 204.

4 Steve Neale 2000, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London & New York: 182, citing Thomas Elsaesser 1987 [1972] “Tales of sound and fury: observations on the family melodrama”, Monogram 4; repr. Christine Gledhill, Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, BFI, London: 43-69; referring to: 53, 61-2. Elsaesser’s article is also reprinted in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, & Leo Braudy eds, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford: 512-535.

5 Laura Mulvey 1977-8, “Notes on Sirk and melodrama”, Movie, 25, Winter: 53-6.
Laura Mulvey 1986, “Melodrama in and out of the home”, in Colin MacCabe, ed., High Theory/Low Culture, St Martin’s Press, New York: 80-100.

6 Films for particular attention, and the screenplays or films on which they are based are: Lantana, 2001, dir. Ray Lawrence; Andrew Bovell, Lantana (based on his play, Speaking in Tongues), Currency Press, Sydney; The Sum of Us, 1994, dirs Geoff Burton & Kevin Dowling; David Stevens, The Sum of Us.

7 Thomas Elsaesser 1992 [1972], “Tales of sound and fury: observations on the family melodrama”, Monogram, 4; repr. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, & Leo Braudy eds, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford: 512-535; this quotation: 516.

8 Franco Moretti 1983, Signs Taken for Wonders, Verso, London: 162; as quoted in Neale 1986: 8 [all emphases in original]

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