Analysis

Angelina Jolie's By the Sea, and the triumphant return of the Hollywood melodrama

The melodrama's unexpected resurgence on television is finally showing up on the big screen

The trailer for By the Sea isn't really a conventional movie advertisement. It's more like a minute-long experimental short about a relationship falling apart.

It begins with a couple — played by writer/director/star Angelina Jolie and her real-life spouse, Brad Pitt — entering a luxurious French resort suite. It ends with a wide shot of the husband storming out, with the wife sprawled on the floor, unmoving. In between, they drink and smoke and yell and fight, as Harry Nilsson's "Perfect Day" plays ironically in the background.

With its tantalizing blend of hysteria and sun-dappled shores, By the Sea, which hits theaters in wide release Friday, is practically the textbook definition of melodrama. It's a curious choice for Jolie, a filmmaker whose previous efforts centered on the Bosnian War and World War II. This new project is either a self-indulgent exercise in celebrity privilege or a self-aware send-up of the celebrity gossip machine, depending on who you ask.

But if By the Sea is an outlier in Jolie's young directorial career, it's very much in line with an unexpected but triumphant new trend: the return of melodrama — a subgenre that seemed all but dead just a decade ago. It's not just a classical melodrama like By the Sea; it's in the DNA of movies like Crimson Peak and Brooklyn and TV shows like Scandal and Empire.

Like noir, melodrama is defined as much by content as it is by style and an attitude. Originating in Victorian-era theater, it is most easily recognized as excess: a dependence on larger-than-life emotions that spill into the surrounding production. In the purest melodramas, everything — the acting, the color palette, the musical score — is embellished beyond believability, with the aim of extracting a heightened emotional reaction from the audience. In cinema, melodrama reached its height during the 1940s and 1950s in films like Irving Rapper's Now, Voyager and Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows.

In classical Hollywood, "melodrama" applied to genres as disparate from romance as horror and crime thrillers (see Vertigo, which creates its mood of erotic suspense with melodramatic techniques). But today, it's often associated with femininity, referring to so-called "weepies" or "women's pictures." As a result, melodrama's critical reputation has taken a hit — like romantic comedies, which are similarly disparaged for lacking subtlety and having contrived plots. (Never mind that action movies often feature the same bugs without eliciting any of the same sneering disdain.)

But gender bias is hardly the sole culprit in melodrama's marginalization. The rise of method acting and the development of more sophisticated technology have trained audiences to expect realism in art, lowering collective tolerance for any artifice — even intentional artifice. When Hollywood spends hundreds of millions to ensure that even superhero and monster movies appear photorealistic, the irony-free theatricality of melodrama feels painfully out of sync.

Despite those broader trends, audiences never entirely lost their taste for melodrama. You could find its influence in period-piece romances like The English Patient and Titanic, musical spectacles like Moulin Rouge! and Dreamgirls, and adolescent-skewing book adaptations like The Notebook and the Twilight saga. And even as it faded from film, melodrama flourished on television in the form of daytime serials. Despite near-constant derision, soap operas remained a staple of American TV since the 1950s, continuing to thrive well into the 1990s.

Only recently, though, has melodrama started to reenter the mainstream. Which begs the logical question: why now?

The simplest answer can be found in the work of TV's reigning Queen of Melodrama: Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal and producer of How to Get Away with Murder. Rhimes' brilliance was in recognizing that melodrama — with its colorful characters and sensational narratives — was uniquely suited to modern television, which pressures shows to continually find new means of hooking viewers with limited time and attention.

Add cable, streaming, and DVRs into the mix, and you've cracked the formula for an addictive binge-watch. While other, purportedly more "highbrow" TV shows flounder in their niches, Scandal and Co. have become legitimate phenomena — largely because their full-throttle pacing and penchant for outlandish, game-changing plot developments demand social media participation. Following the grand melodramatic tradition, these shows are designed to provoke the strongest possible emotional reaction, encouraging people to share their commentary online and turning viewership itself into an interactive event.

Networks have been quick to emulate Rhimes' formula, turning the steady drip of melodramatic TV into a deluge. On any given night, viewers can satisfy their cravings for action-packed narrative and uninhibited emotion with Empire, Fox's hip-hop/Shakespeare mash-up; Quantico, ABC's terrorism conspiracy thriller; UnREAL, Lifetime's reality TV satire; Jane the Virgin, the CW's telenovela adaptation; and Game of Thrones, HBO's fantasy political saga. As Vulture’s Margaret Lyons points out, primetime soaps offer an exciting — and, at their best, meaningful — antidote to the cerebral intensity of "prestige" antihero dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Will By the Sea have the same influence at the multiplex? Based on the lukewarm tracking for the film's already limited release, moviegoers should probably keep their expectations in check. But its very existence suggests that melodrama is still very much alive. Enterprising filmmakers would be wise to overcome their snobbery and embrace its addictive power.

Recommended

The Daily Gossip: Aug. 11, 2022
Kaley Cuoco
Daily gossip

The Daily Gossip: Aug. 11, 2022

The Daily Gossip: August 10, 2022
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck
Daily gossip

The Daily Gossip: August 10, 2022

The daily gossip: August 9, 2022
Rita Ora and Taika Waititi
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: August 9, 2022

The daily gossip: August 8, 2022
US actress Anne Heche
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: August 8, 2022

Most Popular

The Daily Show cleverly illustrates Fox News double standard on FBI raids
Trevor Noah
Last Night on Late Night

The Daily Show cleverly illustrates Fox News double standard on FBI raids

The car crash crisis
A car accident.
Briefing

The car crash crisis

Armed man tried to breach FBI's Cincinnati office
Police line illustration.
breaking news

Armed man tried to breach FBI's Cincinnati office