Monday, August 12, 2019

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #224 - All That Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk)

            Douglas Sirk: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”

And so it is with the series of melodramas (or more dismissively, “women’s weepies” as they were called at the time) that German emigre Sirk made in Hollywood in the 1950s, retiring after making his most financially successful film, Imitation of Life, in 1959. But 1955’s All That Heaven Allows may even be the better film. On its surface, the film tells the story of a society widow, Cary (Jane Wyman) attempting to move past the lonely mourning that has defined her life for herself, her children, and the community around her by falling in love with her Thoreau-reading, free-living young gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), and the consequent fallout with her selfish children and the gossipy community whose standards she violates by not remaining the lonely widow or remarrying with someone appropriately dignified. But working underneath this the film is relentless in its assault on that community; its ideas of making money to keep up with the joneses, its view of a woman as a possession to be walled up in the tomb of the late husband, its view that a woman must bear the responsibilities of tradition at the expense of her own happiness.
The film opens its credit sequence with a high shot of the town square and the clock in the foreground, then slowly works its way to look down the cozy streets (which we will soon learn are largely populated with malicious vipers) before coming down to ground level to introduce us to Cary and her friend Sara (Agnes Moorhead, who alone stands by her side during the drama to follow), quickly and economically setting up the relationships of Cary, her children, her status as widow, and her place outside the country club set. Cary meets her gardener, invites him for the lunch Sara has skipped out on, and a mutual attraction sparks between the two before he continues on his way to work. Cary later joins Sara for a cocktail party in the company of the deeply respectable and stultifying boring Harvey; she's clad in a scandalously low-cut red dress, which does not escape the notice of her children - or the town’s main gossip, the hilariously catty Mona (Jacqueline de Wit), whose every barbed, bitchy line throughout the film is gold.
Cary soon goes on a date with Ron to visit his friends, a group of bohemian non-conformists who could not contrast more sharply with Cary’s rigid society world, and falls in love with him. But when Cary decides to introduce her social circle to Ron, all hell breaks loose - not only is she an older woman (its implied that the age difference is greater than a decade, even though Wyman was in reality only eight years older than Hudson), but she’s disrespecting the memory of her dead husband, and the false insinuation that this affair may have even begun before he passed away is a bit of gossip too delicious for someone like Mona to pass up. But it’s Ron’s non-conformity that rankles as much as any of the above - his goal in work isn’t to make as much money as possible, he drives a beat-up, purely functional car, he lives in a restored old mill - all qualities which add to Cary’s attraction to him and his lifestyle and place her further outside the society she’s inhabited.
These conflicts with her social circle and her children pitted against her emotions and her inner life are the meat of the film, and far more serious than the light soap opera that Sirk's films were taken to be at the time. Dialogue that seems trivial - for example Cary's daughter home from school talking about the ancient Egyptian custom of “walling up the widow alive in the funeral chamber of her dead husband along with all of his other possessions, the theory being that she was a possession too so she was supposed to journey into death with him. And the community saw to it that she did. Of course that doesn’t happen any more.” is answered by a curt retort from Cary “Doesn’t it? Well, perhaps not in Egypt.” And this idea is reflected by the visual palette of the film - not just the bright colors that may seem unmotivated by the actual sets of the film but are always reflective of the emotional states of the characters, but also the framing and composition, which frequently places barriers - doors, screens, banisters - between Cary and her children or fellow townspeople to represent her mental division from them, or mirrors to open up the space and also symbolize the divide between Cary's actual self and the social image she feels the need to present. It's brilliant, layered filmmaking, as masterful in Sirk's chosen genre of melodrama (Sirk preferred the term “dramas of swollen emotions”) as Hitchcock is with his exquisitely planned suspense. He's aided in this by the great cinematographer Russell Metty, who made eight films with Sirk (and also shot Welles' Touch of Evil, Kubrick's Spartacus, Huston's The Misfits, and many more) and is here given a kaleidoscopic range of color to work with.
The story may seem simple and artificial, but the results are anything but. And it’s Sirk’s exploration of this base story - with the added element of craziness in the heated melodrama that ensues that lifts the film that could be a trashy potboiler well into the territory of art.
-         Patrick Brown

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