this was originally published 9/21/2017 on filmmines.
a popular liszt tune fades in. slow panning shots of an idyllic world; both microcosmic in its effect and isolated in its geography. gorgeous colors that are crisp yet run into each other, overlapping against their own god-given beauty. for all intents and purposes, it feels like the opening to a lynch world – one is immediately reminded of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, neither without their sharp turns from suburban gardens-of-eden to nightmares, horrific murder, evil so unimaginable to their protagonists that it feels like it cannot possibly be of this world.
while sirk’s magnum opus All That Heaven Allows features little of the ear-decapitation and intricate drug trade routes of his long-lost influencee, his work still contains every bit of the contrasts that lynch would later go on to investigate. how could a world so appealing, so normal, so tolerant, turn on ME like this?
of course, Heaven was not the only one to challenge the idea of white suburban normality. nicholas ray was also big on the idea – his seminal films Rebel Without a Cause as well as Bigger Than Life both approached the world of change brought about by the 50s, emphasizing the tension created by generational gaps and regressive movements. however, sirk challenges this idea in an inverse way: is it right for people to be segregated depending on which age or era they belong to?
but sirk’s film is not without its nuances in regards to its attack on these upper class sensibilities. from the very first party scene in the film, we see an old man and a younger woman, revealed to be romantically involved, and nothing is ever made of this distinction verbally or formally in the film. sirk – both here and in Magnificent Obsession – is aware that people have the capacity to accept, to love, to progress. his filmmaking is often perceived as sappy to some extent, with his traditionally sweeping happy endings in his more romantic melodramas, but more than anything he finds great hope in his characters, even those he does recognize as the “villain” in the melodramatic scheme. these socialites at the country club can accept age gaps in relationships, and this is already something to be celebrated.
with regards to its melodramatic roots, as illustrated by belton in American Cinema/American Culture as well as williams in Melodrama Revisited, sirk’s hero is at the center of suffering. in fact, with the heavenly scenery and studly rock hudson at the beginning (with aforementioned knowledge of sirk’s tendency towards melodrama), one wonders if it will be ron kirby or the town itself that will be cary’s inevitable downfall. cary’s daughter kay is set up as particularly modern – her feminist sway as well as psychological knowledge certainly points her in a progressive and understanding ability, though sirk eventually sweeps this out from under us as the film progresses by showing her to be as bitter as the rest of the world.
even as more and more characters succumb to their rejection of the relationship – the men because ron intimidates them with his defiance and attraction, the women because they feel jealousy for cary for being independent and having ron – sirk’s own rejection of their intolerance never feels cold and bitter, but accepting and understanding. at the end of the day, sirk understands that people are not perfect, people will be swayed by their prejudices because they were raised in and grew up with prejudiced people. the social constructs that the town attempt to use to box cary in are tools that have surely just been rearranged ad infinitum since the emergence of what we know of as society, and sirk realizes this, but he is desperately trying to make a call, a shout. his mode for this cry for love is melodrama, one that always seems to fit the story. whether it’s the dark rooms and the lights that illuminate faces at every angle, or the cut from ron falling in the snow to a chapel, sirk’s campy pathos are always there to compliment his own moral motifs.
sirk consistently makes clear his issues with the family and the socialites, but not always his issues with cary and ron. at one point we overheard ned speaking about romance: “the basic values of sex attraction between a man and a woman are…” (he gets interrupted by their presence) “oh, mother and harvey!” it is established quite frequently that cary and harvey are meant to get together, both overtly and in little moments like this that are more subtle. but the reasoning is never stated; their chemistry is frequently off, and though harvey has surely done nothing “wrong” he simply isn’t who cary prefers. a message whose social implications even today are widely relevant as far as consent is concerned.
speaking of consent, cary’s violent rejection of howard at the party is another not quite as bold statement about the right for a woman to choose. in this world, overrun by capitalism and freedom, why are these well-off women so pressed for choices? why must everything be decided over and over?
still, the film wants to say more. sirk always had so much to say in his films, there’s such a strong sense of passion coming from each of them. cary is depressed, or at least shows many signs of it (a few being her constantly looking into nothing, dodging eye contact, and dodging commitments). at one point early on, in her first scene with ron, she awkwardly changes the subject a couple of times. distraught with her own repressed heartbreak, and eagerly perplexed by ron’s comforting smalltalk, she finds herself quietly overwhelmed. it is an incredible scene whose subtleties are unlike anything else from a studio era film; there’s a million emotions in her hesitance. there’s also a triumphant line where cary says to ron “two people that love each other, that want to get married. why is that so difficult all of the sudden?” i shouldn’t have to explain the implications of that.
All That Heaven Allows is not without its melodramatic tropes. as would be expected, according to williams, the first tense music in the film is when mona thinks of new gossip. but this doesn’t come as a surprise; for the entire film up until this point, cary is quite aware of the taboo relationship she has with ron. where ron embraces it with his friends, cary shies away with hers. is sirk making a statement about this? is he condemning her? he thoroughly understands her position, but then again, he understands everyone. we’re talking of the man whose ex-wife turned nazi and took his child from him when she found out he had married a jew, and then he went on to make A Time to Love and a Time to Die, a beautiful film from the romantic perspective of a german soldier in wwii. you couldn’t make this up.
there are, however, parts like this (sirk possibly passing judgment on cary) where i wonder how much sirk is trying to subvert the melodramatic tropes he’s often known for. while it’s quite unrealistic that a rock hudson would end up in real life with a jane wyman (not that this is any less realistic than most hollywood romances), their supposedly star-crossed romance hardly features immediate lust and love. many romantic embraces are burdened with questions. questions of what people will think, of how cary will adapt to her new life, or how her children will react and adapt. furthermore, these characters can never return to innocence. their rejection of the normal, modern world is one which would require more ignorance than bliss, especially after the heartache cary and ron both endure throughout. there is no garden to return to in the illuminated town we saw in the opening – it’s been turned into a land of horror. the only escape is social progress, moving on, shifting paradigms.
sirk’s film may be a melodrama, or it may not. he may judge his characters with the tender hand that a parent does, or his authority may be more forceful. but at the base of it all, he understands. he understands every one of them. he understands cary’s reluctance to tell her children about ron because he knows how much pain she has seen. he understands ron’s frustration with cary because he too wants to have that innocence, to not succumb to toxic norms. he understands ned and kay – ned’s anger at his own mother trying to forget his father, and kay’s anxiety that she has in her own relationship that she projects onto cary. he understands the town – those who gossip, those who assault, those who comfort. make no mistake, he doesn’t always condone it, but he has this boundless empathy that is just so admirable. and behind all these improbable relationships and symbolic deer and unbridled pathos, there’s a film at the core whose virtues are far beyond most films that come out even today.