Todd Haynes: Master of Melodrama

Big emotions, endless conflict, and beautiful surfaces are the director's trademark.
Todd Haynes Dark Waters

Since the 1980s, Todd Haynes has been making visually stunning and playfully offbeat films that spotlight unresolvable conflicts, the magic of the world around us, and the depth of human emotions. With his latest feature, Dark Waters, a slow-burn telling of the devastating true story of a lawyer exposing DuPont’s negligent handling of poisonous chemicals, he secures his place as a modern master of cinematic melodrama.

As laid out by scholar Jonathan Goldberg in his 2018 book Melodrama: An Aesthetics of Impossibility, Haynes’ work carries traces of melodramatic works by Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. These three directors are attuned to the ways that music, sound, and images can communicate when words simply are not enough. One of the key elements of cinematic melodrama is the portrayal of “impossible” situations, typically pertaining to domestic relationships fraught with secrets, hidden desires, or the inability to find the right words to express oneself. Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes all offer highly stylized works full of golden lighting, bright costumes and makeup, exuberant music, and swooping, gliding camera movements. These stylistic elements point to a world beyond words, and this is where the magic of melodrama lies.

Haynes first came to prominence with his 1987 short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which creatively uses Barbie dolls to explore the dramatic ups and downs in the life of singer/songwriter Karen Carpenter. The film delves into her suburban past in Downey, California, and portrays The Carpenters’ ascent to fame and subsequent decline as a result of her struggle with anorexia. Superstar is an excellent early example of Haynes’ particular style of melodrama. Here, he darkly parodies behind-the-music documentaries and explores domestic tensions and constraining societal expectations of women, yet he renders this story surreal by shrinking everything down to tiny plastic figures and intermittently including scenes of flashing stock footage and discordant synthesizer music.

Writing for The Guardian, Guy Lodge notes that “while Haynes is working in a vein of very rich irony, there’s not a hint of snark here,” and that Superstar takes a sympathetic stance toward its tragic heroine. Indeed, the same could be said for much of melodrama. Characters scream and cry and collapse in the hallways of their immaculate suburban homes, clutching their jewels, yet we are not meant to laugh at them or roll our eyes with disdain. Haynes’ melodramas ask you to consider what lies beneath beautifully styled surfaces and then shows us that his characters’ pain is just like ours, despite seeming strange and overwrought.

In his New Yorker profile of the filmmaker, John Lahr details how Haynes has always been deeply attuned to his own artistic visions, especially his commitment to disrupting Hollywood conventions by utilizing its genres (particularly melodrama) in new and subtly experimental ways. This vision began to cohere in new ways with Poison (1991), a triptych inspired by the works of Jean Genet and largely considered one of the first films of the New Queer Cinema movement, and the critically acclaimed Safe (1995), anchored by Julianne Moore’s brilliant performance as an anxious housewife whose health begins to deteriorate. Haynes translated his existential anxiety, sadness, and fury about the AIDS crisis into these tales of exclusion, illness, and queer desire, demonstrating his commitment to social and political issues and his unique take on the excessive stylization and suburban settings of classical Hollywood melodrama.

With 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, Haynes infused cinematic melodrama with the sensibility of Oscar Wilde and covered it in glitter, feathers, and eyeshadow. In the New Yorker profile, Haynes describes his retelling of the history of glam rock (loosely based on the lives of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop) as a “parallel universe in which the self-created fictions of high camp and glam rock become the raw material of a Citizen Kane structure.” Velvet Goldmine utilizes the campy aesthetics and gender fluidity of glam rock to pose questions about identity, celebrity, and whether or not it is possible to truly know someone by studying moments and traces from their life.

Along with Velvet Goldmine, his surreal, time-bending Bob Dylan piece, I’m Not There (2007), brings the melos (music) of melodrama to life, offering the sentiment that music can speak where words cannot. Both of these films portray the conflicts that arise when one’s identity is constantly shifting and being refigured — an integral part of music stardom yet one that can be destabilizing and alienating. The use of pop/rock music on the soundtrack of each film offers a sense of respite and freedom for characters who feel stifled or conflicted in their personal relationships and careers. Here, music expresses complicated emotions that are difficult to articulate.

In Velvet Goldmine, songs such as Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and T.Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” allow Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to explore his femininity and passion for performing, even when these aspects of his life are at odds with societal norms or his family’s wishes. In I’m Not There, when Jude Quinn (one of many incarnations of Dylan in the film, played here by Cate Blanchett) begins to question the ethics and authenticity of the music industry, songs such as the blustery and impassioned “Ballad of a Thin Man” reflect his emotional state and allow him to work through difficult feelings (“Something is happening and you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”). Music cannot resolve these conflicts, but it gives the characters a powerful tool to express themselves.

Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015) are Haynes’ most traditional melodramas insofar as they stylistically resemble their 1940s and 1950s forebears, and center on ordinary middle- to upper-class people whose desires are at odds with what society expects of them and the tragic results of defying these expectations. Far From Heaven paints a glossy portrait of the breakdown of a seemingly perfect nuclear family, when Cathy (Julianne Moore) falls in love with her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), and is simultaneously confronted by the fact that her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is gay. Far From Heaven is Haynes’ adoring tribute to Sirk, evoking the lush surfaces, naive heroines, and conflicting desires of films such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956).

As Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, Haynes updates Sirk’s template to make room for the homophobia and racism that always lurked beneath the surface of his classical Hollywood weepies, making explicit what Sirk could not (or perhaps was not even aware of), leading to what Haynes refers to as a “chess game of pain” wherein anytime someone rebels against the social codes they are expected to live by, other people are hurt or enraged.

Lavishly decorated mid-century homes become sites of impossible marital tension and bigotry as characters fail to acknowledge the social structures they live within or understand experiences beyond what they are familiar with. Haynes does not implore us to laugh at or pity these people but rather to understand that their suffering is bigger than any individual person and sometimes cannot even be put into words. Excessive suffering is reflected by excessively decorated homes and extravagantly stylized lighting, costumes, hairstyles, gestures, and camera movements.

Carol functions similarly in its portrayal of the forbidden desires between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara). It is liberating to watch Carol and Therese give in to their powerful feelings for each other, driving away from the city and spending nights wrapped up in each other in motel rooms, which makes their separation at the hands of Carol’s angry ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) all the more devastating. Carol’s homosexuality costs her custody of her child, and Therese is emotionally wrecked by the unexpected force of her desire for Carol, which ends as rapidly as it begins.

The film is bathed in warm, golden lighting and punctuated by red lipstick and nail polish, accentuating its 1950s setting and the conventional femininity both women perform. Most of what transpires between Carol and Therese is never spoken out loud, expressed instead through meaningful glances, soft touches, and small gestures (Therese taking a photo of Carol, Carol saying she likes Therese’s hat) save for one unforgettable term of endearment: “My angel, flung out of space.”

Haynes’ most recent films, Wonderstruck (2017) and Dark Waters, hardly resemble his audacious earlier work in terms of tone and subject matter, yet his authorial vision remains strong. Wonderstruck, adapted by Brian Selznick from his novel of the same name, tells the story of two hard-of-hearing children, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), who both set off alone to New York City 50 years apart from each other in search of a sense of belonging. As Emily Kubincanek writes, the cinematography of the silent, black and white 1920s scenes and the noisy, gritty, saturated 1970s display Haynes’ reverence for films from these respective time periods. In his essay “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” scholar Thomas Elsaesser connects the grand gestural acting style, constant musical accompaniment, and kinetic camera movements of silent cinema to 1950s melodrama, a connection Haynes brings to light in both the 1920s and 1970s sections of Wonderstruck.

Its whimsical tone, young protagonists, and source material make this perhaps Haynes’ only family-friendly film, yet it is just as rich and interesting as anything he has ever directed. Haynes draws mature and restrained performances from his young actors (perhaps at the expense of complexity), giving each of their characters ample screen time to explore their tentative independence and feelings of alienation. Some of the most powerful melodramatic acting is wordless, and the young actors expertly communicate deep anguish and longing with their facial expressions and body language.

As Elsaesser writes, music is a central driving force of melodrama (silent or otherwise), and both Carter Burwell’s delightful score and the ’70s pop and rock soundtrack (David Bowie, Brian Eno) trace the emotional ups and downs of the film as the dynamic and thematically resonant sounds work to tease out the magical connection between the two stories. Melodrama is notorious for making audiences cry, and this is usually achieved through narratives that move between emotional polarities, and cathartic (if not outright tragic) endings. Haynes builds a sense of grief and mystery throughout as the two wayward children search through museums and city streets for their lost loved ones, only to release the built-up emotional tension with a bittersweet yet heartwarming ending with a twist that makes everything that came before all the more significant. With Wonderstruck, Haynes takes an approach to melodrama that is indebted to silent cinema, drawing out emotional power from gestures, music, and narrative twists and turns without placing much emphasis on dialogue (or any at all, in Rose’s case).

On paper, Dark Waters seems as out of place in Haynes’ oeuvre as an adaptation of a winding, magical children’s story, yet his authorial presence transforms the most disparate material into something tragic and sublime. Dark Waters follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer who slowly uncovers the poisonous truth about DuPont’s Teflon chemicals and the disastrous environmental damage the corporation has wrought over the years. Haynes’ camera squeezes through claustrophobic hallways, storage rooms, and offices. It soars above bleak, grey farmland and toxic waste sites in West Virginia and finds anxious stillness in Bilott’s home as he sits pensively at his kitchen table, agonizing over how to help the thousands of people drinking water filled with toxic chemicals.

Haynes transforms what could be a straightforward tale of a hard-working lawyer going up against an evil corporation into a drawn-out melodrama about the toll it takes on one’s personal life and physical health to be committed to resolving a seemingly unsolvable legal conflict. Small numbers frequently appear in the corner of the screen, indicating the years passing by as Bilott slowly builds his case against DuPont, and he (as well as the audience) is painfully aware that people are getting sicker and dying in the meantime.

Every time he seems to make progress, he is hit with a devastating setback. Evidence mounts against DuPont — blood samples containing toxic chemicals, mangled body parts from dead cows, mountains of paperwork confirming their obfuscation — yet the courts are seemingly unable to do anything to stop the damage. This is a classic melodrama in terms of its precise visual style and its tragic framing of the great losses people suffer in the fight against unshakeable political and social forces. Ruffalo brilliantly walks the line between optimism and exhaustion, knowing the right thing to do while also knowing his efforts may be futile. This is Haynes’ most explicitly political film, and it is a testament to his authorial vision that he infuses this potentially tedious material with rigorous audiovisual style and a sense of tragic longing.

Haynes has earned his place as the reigning king of melodrama, having explored the genre’s sensibilities, stylistic quirks, and unresolvable conflicts throughout his decades-long career. By demonstrating the flexibility and creative potential of melodrama outside of its classical Hollywood context, he’s proven that this seemingly outdated mode of storytelling still has life in it.

Angela Morrison: Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.