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Scene Analysis: All That Heaven Allows

December 18, 2013

Scene Analysis: All That Heaven Allows

Have Yourself a Bittersweet Christmas

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Christmas can be a tyranny. Amid the sound and the fury of the masses planning their shopping trips and Christmas parties, companies trying to sell you their wares, and a general mood of forced jollity, to some people at least, there’s a hollow, melancholic tinge beneath that tinselled veneer. No one understood that better than the sly, arch-commentator on American values, Douglas Sirk, and he envisions a particularly frosty Christmas as the nadir to his tale of doomed romance in the 50s suburbs, All That Heaven Allows.

The scene starts with a classic Sirk tableau – a protagonist (in this case, Jane Wyman’s Cary – a middle-aged widow) looking out of a window. Beyond the obvious use of the window as an emblem of looking, of longing, it also embellishes the film’s overall theme of mitigation – Cary will always be battling society’s desire to encase/entrap her behind domestic structures both visible and invisible. The ironic juxtaposition of the carol singers’ voices crossed with Cary’s listless expression puts the seal on the rueful tint she will bring to the rest of the scene. Incidentally, the gorgeous, ethereal blue glow of this window vista was something that Todd Haynes was to incorporate in his own homage to female empowerment, Far From Heaven.

The quiet of the scene and Cary’s solitude is rudely interrupted by that ‘forced jollity’ I mentioned earlier. Cary’s grown-up children arrive home (0:16) and fill the silence with their brashness and unshakeable sense of entitlement. While Cary’s son, Ned, rushes upstairs to finalise the gift he’s planned for his mother, the first noose tightens on Cary (0.40) when she turns around to be greeted with the news that her daughter, Kay, is planning to marry. This being the same daughter who earlier in the film had begged her mother out of social embarrassment not to marry the lowly gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), whom Cary had been ‘seeing’. Symbolising this hypocritical and short-sighted reversal of roles is Sirk’s use of the colour red. Signifying yearning and blossoming throughout the film, the initially cynical Kay is now decked out in a resplendent red dress and regales her mother with stories of the proposal and sight of the engagement ring itself.

At 1:20 the penny fully drops with Cary, and it’s here that the amazing acting of Jane Wyman takes over. Somehow, she is able to affect a glassy-eyed resignation and despair that not only pierces through the immediacy of her daughter’s revelation, but through time – as if it’s confirmation that her de facto domestic entrapment has been a longstanding conspiracy that only now she can perceive.

Ned rushes downstairs with that classic gambit of yuletide tyranny, “hey this is Christmas, let’s enjoy it” (1:47), and he compounds his sister’s own ‘betrayal’ with the matter-of-fact revelation that he’ll be moving on to pastures new as well. There’s something in Ned’s blitheness about his plans to spend a year in Paris and time in Iran (oh, the irony!) presumably with an oil company, that hints at Sirk’s utter contempt for this imperial facet of the American psyche. If all that wasn’t enough, Ned springs another nasty surprise on his mother. At 2:15 he declares that he’s planning to sell the house. It’s a staggering revelation of the patriarchy in this class of 50s American society, that with the father dead, it wouldn’t occur to Ned to actually ask his mother about her plans for the family home, as he is essentially the ‘inheriting’ male and has the right to decide.

At 3:05, Sirk’s radical debunking of American ideology is complete in one of the great meta-cinematic images. Cary receives the ultimate Christmas gift – a television (the classic symbol of burgeoning suburban America in the 50s). The accompanying sales rep gives Cary a commentary on how the television will revolutionise her domestic life, but as the camera gradually moves in on Cary’s despairing face in reflection, we know his mantra of “life’s parade at your fingertips” is really a mandate for her own imprisonment.

For my full review of the film, please read here (December 2013)

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