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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


FSS Melodrama

FSS Melodrama: Melodrama and Mise en Scène

Course Convenor: Dr Joseph Bitney, Faculty of English

In his seminal 1972 article ‘Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama’, Thomas Elsaesser proposed that the Hollywood melodrama of the 1940s and 50s represented ‘perhaps the most highly elaborated, complex mode of cinematic signification that the American cinema has ever produced’. And by the late 1970s this once-disparaged genre had indeed become one of the most fruitful areas of investigation for the emerging discipline of film theory, allowing scholars to explore political questions about gender and sexuality, social class, and the nuclear family alongside—and through—analyses of film style and aesthetics. Intended both for English students new to cinema and Film and Screen Studies students alike, this course zeroes in on the classical Hollywood melodrama and the central role it has played within film scholarship. In particular, we will focus on the relationship between melodrama and ‘mise en scène’—a crucial cinematic concept that, by providing a name to the arrangement of things before the camera (and thus to the art of film directing), has become one of the greatest inventions of film criticism.

Why did the particular settings, plots, and themes of the Hollywood melodrama make it arguably the key site for theorizing mise en scène more broadly? And why did mise en scène criticism, with its linking of style and affect and its call for stylistic analysis beyond the individual shot, come to play such a crucial role in thinking through the politics of melodrama and ‘the woman’s film’? A vital part of the module will thus be our re-examination of the critical debates about mise en scène and, in particular, our attempt to assess the legacy of the foundational film and feminist theories of the 1970s and 80s. But in addition to these theoretical questions about style and meaning and gender and sexuality, we will also attend carefully to the details of these films themselves, learning to discuss problems of film form and style in a critical, sophisticated way.

This module is offered to students in the Faculty of English and is also available to students on the FSS MPhil.  It is noted that numbers are limited and in case of oversubscription, English students take priority. 


Course Schedule

Week 1: What is Melodrama? ‘The Woman’s Film’ and Melodrama as Mode/Genre/Style

Week 2: What is Mise en Scène? Noir, Classical Hollywood, and Early Mise en Scène Criticism

Week 3: The Family Melodrama: Widescreen Cinema and the Politics of Mise en Scène

Week 4: Max Ophuls, Camera Movement, and ‘The Woman’s Film’ as Reflexive Form

Week 5: Adapting Melodrama, Part I: Imitation of Life, Race, and Social Mise en Scène

Week 6: Adapting Melodrama, Part II: The ‘Sirkian System’ and Mise en Scène Today

Films to be screened include: Stella Dallas (1937), Mildred Pierce (1945), Laura (1944), Bigger Than Life (1956), Home from the Hill (1960), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), Imitation of Life (1934), Imitation of Life (1959), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Far From Heaven (2002)


Indicative Readings:

André Bazin, What is Cinema, Vol. 1 (1958)

Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (1976)

Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987)

Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (1989)

Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (1996)

Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (2008)

Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (2012)

Jonathan Goldberg, Melodrama: An Aesthetics of Impossibility (2016)


Alexandre Astruc, ‘La Camera-Stylo’ (1948) and ‘What is mise-en-scene?’ (1959)

Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama’ (1972)

Paul Willeman, ‘Towards an Analysis of the Sirkian System’ (1972)

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, ‘Minnelli and Melodrama’ (1977)

Linda Williams, ‘“Something Else Besides a Mother”: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama’ (1984)

David Bordwell, ‘Widescreen Aesthetics and Mise en Scene Criticism’ (1985)

Christine Gledhill, ‘The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation’ (1987)

Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, ‘Imitation(s) of Life: The Black Woman’s Double Determination as Troubling “Other”’ (1988)

Barrett Hodsdon, ‘The mystique of mise en scene revisited’ (1992)

Linda Williams, ‘Melodrama Revised’ in Refiguring American Film Genres (1998)

Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, ‘The Price of Heaven: Remaking Politics in All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Far From Heaven’ (2008)

Daniel Morgan, ‘Max Ophuls and the Limits of Virtuosity: On the Aesthetics and Ethics of Camera Movement’ (2011)

Students previously unfamiliar with these topics may also wish to consult the following sources: Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (1985); David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Steiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1987); John Gibbs, Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation (2002); John Mercer and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility (2004).


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