All that Heaven Allows: How Douglas Sirk's 1955 film critiqued an American malaise through trope of forbidden love
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German-born Douglas Sirk moved to Hollywood in 1937 and made a name for himself as the maker of “women’s pictures” — melodramas with ill-fated romances and tragic characters. The term melodrama, originally referring to any drama set to music, carries a negative connotation in common parlance, but Sirk’s films infused the form with a critical consciousness that commented on the stories even as it presented them. In his supreme accomplishment, All that Heaven Allows (1955), Sirk uses the trope of forbidden love to mount a heartrending critique of what he takes to be a contemporary American malaise.
The film begins with a shot of a church steeple, that symbol of small-time community. The camera descends from its clockface striking noon, glides over red leaves of autumnal trees and scans the identical-looking houses of a nondescript suburb in New England. Perfectly manicured lawns, mothers on sidewalks with their prams and the odd automobile: images of middle-class virtue that David Lynch will parody in Blue Velvet (1986). The camera stops at a randomly selected house where the story begins.
Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is a widow of about 40 resigned to her staid bourgeois existence of respectable motherhood and occasional cocktail parties. There are men in the local country club who make her proposals, decent and otherwise, but the choices she is allowed to have are hardly inspiring: to be the secret mistress of a man who sees her as an object of desire or to be the wife of an old, kind gent who may be in love with her. Her heart, however, has its own way, and she ends up falling in love with her hunky gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), several years younger than her. Eating with his hands, his collars turned up and shirt unbuttoned, the tanned, subaltern Ron is everything Cary isn’t. Having rejected the rat race, he lives in a glasshouse in the woods, embodying the self-sufficient life Thoreau described in Walden. Ron is presented as a temperamental figure with dubious, even threatening motivations, and so we share Cary’s doubts about him even as we recognise the attraction he exerts.
The affair scandalises her grown-up children, who expect Cary to “act her age”, and her community, where she soon becomes the object of vile gossip. The film makes it clear that it’s not so much the class difference as the difference in age between Cary and Ron that sends the townsfolk into a tizzy. That an older woman, practically middle-aged, could desire and be desirable to a young, attractive man is an affront to the puritan mores of the community, to whose order sexuality is a threat. Admiring herself in front of a mirror, Cary’s nerdy daughter, a Freud-loving Psychology student, says that “sex becomes incongruous” after a certain age, clearly disapproving of her mother dating anyone younger. A moment later, looking at the red dress Cary has worn, her son asks her if it isn’t too revealing. He’ll later accuse her of seeing Ron as a “pile of muscles”. One obnoxious acquaintance at the country club party that evening insinuates that Cary is out of line for wanting to wear an appealing red dress.
Sirk and screenwriter Peg Senwick caricature the country club as a nosy, disingenuous, gossip-mongering and casually spiteful group. When Cary brings Ron to the club for the first time, in order for him to be accepted by the town, the club members treat him like an alien species and call him names: “nature boy”, “earthy type”. This exoticism, of course, derives from the perceived sexual promiscuity of coloured folk — a subtext that German filmmaker (and Sirk’s protégé) Rainer Fassbinder would make explicit in his remake of the film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), in which the tanned Ron is replaced by a black man, an immigrant and Muslim to boot. On the other hand, the gathering of friends in the woods that Ron takes Cary to is a natural community, spontaneous in their joy and genuine in their affection. The first-name based intimacy of this group, consisting of rugged immigrants and other lively underclass specimen, is in direct opposition to the suffocative banality of the small talk at the country club, with its stiff formality and fake decency.
The two contrasting communities are an opportunity for Sirk — better placed as an outsider to do so — to bring two specific visions of America in dialectical opposition. Ron and his friends are spiritual inheritors of the 19th century transcendentalist movement, which advocated a life of solitude and self-sufficiency in harmony with nature, away from the corrupting influence of civilisation. Cary and her town are, on the contrary, contemporary products of 20th century America. Sirk’s film was made during what is known as the Boomer era, a period of American post-war prosperity, accelerated consumerism and cultural conservatism. One of the defining phenomena of the period was the “white flight”: a large-scale migration of white people from the mixed-race urban zones to newly-developed suburban settlements. The war now over, once-employed women found themselves at home and away from entertainment options in the city, leading to an exponential increase in the sale of television sets across the country. When her son gifts her a television set as a cure to her loneliness, Cary is filmed as a reflection on the television screen, trapped by it.
Douglas Sirk was a true intellectual, perhaps the only one in Hollywood. As a youngster in Hamburg, he studied under art historian Erwin Panofsky, attended Einstein’s lectures on relativity and translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into German. He was an active theatre director working on both classics, in which he was well-versed, as well as contemporary plays such as his by peer Bertolt Brecht. In Hollywood, a land averse to intellectuals, he took on one of the most derided genres, melodrama, transforming overwrought material into clear-eyed modernist works. He managed to let his mise en scène, the ensemble of a film’s plastic elements, always convey more meaning than what the script allows for. His handling of Technicolor, in particular, was exemplary.
In All That Heaven Allows, he heightens the tints at Cary’s home, saturating the light with primary colours and producing dramatic shadows. He contrasts this artificiality of Cary’s milieu with the natural, earthy tones of Ron and his surroundings. Likewise, Cary is often photographed as though she’s imprisoned by her décor: furniture, window grills and their shadows. Her house, a veritable mausoleum in memory of her dead husband, is full of objects against which she is filmed in tight shots. In contrast, Ron’s mill-turned-home is warm-looking and sparsely furnished. Ron’s house and the surrounding nature are photographed in wide shots full of breathing space. Sirk was, in fact, influenced by Brecht’s theory of the theatre, which postulated that the audience must always be kept at a dispassionate distance from the spectacle so that they reflect on the story critically rather than get immersed in it. Sirk’s use of colour and composition was frequently directed to this end.
That, however, does not vitiate the emotional impact that All That Heaven Allows creates. It’s a highly moving work about the anxiety of having to live up to societal standards and the programmed fear of rejecting them. Sirk, too, has no fear of the excesses the material presents. If the film has endured despite the sometimes clumsy and verbose script (inspiring no less than two remakes, great works in their own right), it is wholly thanks to Sirk’s treatment, which elevates it to another artistic plane.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2019 15:12:22 IST