This is an essay I wrote for a class called Cinema and Modernity

All That Heaven Allows and Far From Heaven: The Melodrama

            Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, in both being melodramas set in 1950s small-town America, concern themselves with, generally, the social repression forced upon mothers turned into housewives by the end of World War II, and, specifically, with the dinner-party set’s need to sanction the actions of women among their flock who have divorced or been widowed. These actions center on the respective woman’s daily interactions with her children and most importantly with men who are candidates to replace the recently departed in a society where only men do the work and make the money while women need only marry rich and tend to the home. Where these films differ is that the former deals strictly with the social expectations placed on a widow based on who she should marry next and the backlash created by her choice of what many see as the wrong man, while the latter takes a more panoramic view of a divorcée’s choice of the wrong man, mixing in racial concerns by making this man black-skinned, and holding off on the romantic aspects of a friendship that remains platonic throughout. What qualifies both of these films as melodramas besides their subject matter is, firstly, the non-diegetic music, designed to provoke an emotional response, that plays during many of these films’ pivotal scenes and, secondly, a shooting style that often relies on: close-ups of its leading woman’s face to correspond with the aforementioned music at the end of key scenes, as well as medium-scale shots through windows and mirrors, which are meant to emphasize the pristine nature of these small towns to throw into stark relief the cracks in the façade that these films expose. Moreover, the opening credit sequences for both films consist of crane shots of gorgeous houses and buildings as well as autumn leaves and their lush colors, again signifying the idyllic nature of the towns. 

Far From Heaven, having been released more than forty-five years after Sirk’s film, gives another nod to its predecessor with, obviously, the “heaven” in its title, as well as its appearance in the title sequence in 1950s blue pastel lettering. Henceforth, Haynes’ references to Sirk are legion, with the most important being the shared occupation of the forbidden men, Raymond Deagan in the later film and Ron Kirby in the earlier, both their leading woman’s gardeners, to stress the class distinctions between them and their bosses as well as the age difference in All That Heaven Allows.

The first scene of this film is a quick reminder to Cary that she is supposed to marry close to her age, as her best friend Sara immediately shows the authoritarian nature of the country-club culture by forcing Cary to join her at the club for dinner despite her protests and later offering to call Harvey, an older man than Ron, to serve as her date. Later in the same scene Cary is exposed as someone who needs Sara’s bullying, frowning at Ron’s suggestion that she should only take up gardening if she thought she’d like it rather than as a matter of course. Thus, this initial scene establishes a rift between the freedom Ron allows Cary to have over doing only what she likes and the restriction Sara places upon her to do only what should be done, which consists of keeping busy at home when the children are away by watching TV and going out to the club for dinner on a nightly basis, again only if the kids aren’t home.

Conversely, although Cathy in Far From Heaven is also shown to be an unwitting accomplice in her own repression by stating in an interview that she’s never “wanted anything,” up to that point she hasn’t been introduced to any party that might give her another example of how life should be lived, as Ron offered Cary. Moreover, when she meets Raymond and speaks to him as an equal, the social rebuke she receives comes not from a single person like Sara but from a newspaper article, and by extension its readers, describing her as “kind to Negroes.”          

Both of these women respond to their introduction to men completely outside of their social sphere as well as the censure of their behavior by acting in an increasingly contradictory manner. They both become more involved in their particular relationships with these new men while telling others, and sometimes themselves, that they remain the same women, constantly aware of the social consequences of their behavior and thus perfectly willing and able to break these new attachments to salvage their esteemed reputation.

Cary, while falling in love with Ron, rebukes herself for this forbidden union in anticipation of her friends’ punishment. When Ron takes her into his old mill, after she re-arranges things and suggests he build a home out of it, she regains her conventional thinking by apologizing in this manner: “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to arrange your life. After all, it’s none of my business.” What she neglects with those words is that she has made his home her business by recommending changes that will turn the place into something she’d be comfortable living in rather than a place that he would attract other women with. After he kisses her in noticing her obvious interest in their coupling she reacts with visual shame, trying to distance herself from him. Several months later, when winter is at full steam, she dismisses his marriage proposal as “absurd” even though she clearly loves him, again reproaching herself in lieu of the judgments of others. She finally accepts his proposal after stubbornly fighting against it, but when the news hits the town a day later, it’s hardly surprising that Sara visits at Cary’s home to reprimand her on top of how she’s already judged herself.

By contrast, Cathy clinches her status as a more liberated woman who’s also surer of herself than Cary in her initial reaction to her growing friendship with Raymond and the stir that causes around her. At the art show, Cathy has a long conversation with him on modern art that confirms their friendship as one between equals rather than one between a greater and a lesser race, as Cathy’s friends believe. In a tactic used often in melodramas shots of Raymond and Cathy are shot from the point of view of everyone else in the room to signal the fact that their discussion is being listened to and people are forming negative opinions on what they hear. As Cathy’s best friend Eleanor states, “You have this whole place in a clamor,” the protagonist does not berate herself in the face of public disapproval of her actions like Cary would but responds defiantly: “Oh, for heavens’ sakes, why? Because of that ridiculous story? […] He happens to have very interesting views on Miró.” While she endears herself to the viewer with this gutsy stance, like Cary she eventually gives in when the backlash becomes truly harsh.

What makes the scenes in which each woman breaks off the relationship with her forbidden friend so powerful is that both of the women are left to define the inconveniences of their affections in the same overdramatic, coldly scientific terms used by the critics they at first resisted. Hence Cary tells Ron, “I can’t ruin my children’s lives” though that suggestion is utterly ridiculous. It is based on the assumption that her children shouldn’t be asked to leave the family home that has been passed down through generations, ignoring the fact that they don’t live there except on occasional weekends as mandated by their school schedules, and that they’re at the age when, as we find out later in the film, they are making designs on creating their own home by getting married or finding a career. Similarly, Cathy tells Raymond, “It isn’t plausible for me to be friends with you,” as if their friendship were one to “plausibly” argue for rather than a matter of tangled emotions, which she later calls a feeling of being “alive somewhere.” The bittersweetness of the scene is amplified when Raymond is the one to passionately argue for what they share, which he defines as “one person reaching out to another, taking an interest in another […] and maybe for one fleeting instant managing to see beyond the surface, beyond the color of things.” A last-minute reprieve in a comparison of the films’ dissimilar endings does not assuage Cathy’s loss, unlike Cary’s.

As Cary changes her mind in front of Ron’s former mill-turned-home with a makeshift porch, the screenwriter of All That Heaven Allows invokes a light touch of heaven in staging a convenient accident for Ron which acts as the catalyst for Cary at last ignoring her doubts and returning to his side. Even with Ron recovering on his living room couch, the film’s dénouement is a triumphant one, which stands in dark contrast to that of Far From Heaven. Cathy does indeed reunite with Raymond, but only after learning that white kids who play with her son and attend his school had stoned his daughter, the Deagan household is nightly pelted by rocks thrown by blacks, and that fueled by this multi-sided abuse Raymond is taking his family to Baltimore. Ergo her affection for Raymond can only be shown in saying goodbye, a sad yet fitting conclusion to a film questioning whether racism is truly no longer an issue in our time. Thus, melodramas, in their exploration of the repression of women in the home, cannot help but expose the larger social impact of what occurs behind closed doors and magnificent windows. This is the legacy of Far From Heaven, which comments on the melodramas of fifty years previous and expands their grasp to modern issues that keep the genre relevant.

Works Cited

All That Heaven Allows. Dir. Douglas Sirk. DVD. Criterion Collection, 2001.

            Far From Heaven. Dir. Todd Haynes. DVD. Alliance Atlantis, 2003.

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One Response to “This is an essay I wrote for a class called Cinema and Modernity”

  1. Far From Heaven « Brown Okinawa Assault Incident Says:

    […] Lars’s essay on the same movie compared to an actual Sirk. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Not […]

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