All That Heaven Allows

Pardon my highly symbolic deer
★★
☆☆
Released: 
1955
Director: 
Douglas Sirk
Starring: 
Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead
The Setup: 
Lonely society widow has affair with THE HELP.
Discussion: 

I saw this in the pile of DVDs for $5 on a table around the corner from where I work, and though I had no idea what this movie was, I saw that it’s Criterion, so I just went ahead and bought it. It’s only later that you think “You know, Armageddon is in the Criterion Collection, too” [and WHO did Michael Bay have to blow for that?].

Anyway, it turns out it’s a melodrama by Douglas Sirk, and I had SO meant to watch a Douglas Sirk film ever since seeing Far From Heaven, so I was happy with my purchase. Turns out I couldn’t have done better, as Far From Heaven seems to be almost entirely based on this movie. But we’ll get back to that.

The deal here is that Jane Wyman [who most will remember from Falcon Crest], back when she was in her early middle age and quite vulnerable and charming, is Carrie, a widow with a son and daughter [constantly spouting Freud-lite] away at college. She’s in one of those picturesque New England towns that has a rigid social order that it’s hard for us to imagine now. Everyone expects her to marry Harvey, who it is said right off the bat will NOT want to have sex, and doesn’t have more than one drink a night. So Harvey is obviously snoresville, and Jane wants more for her life, and though the movie doesn’t outright say it, she is not ready to settle into a sexless existence.

So one day she has a short conversation with Rock Hudson, as Ron, who comes by every now and then to tend to her trees. He says he’s super into trees, which she likes [not to mention that he’s big, virile, strapping, and Rock Hudson]. The next time he comes over he invites her to join in and his friends at a dinner. She meets all his New England intellectual friends who read Walden [I’d say bolt at that point, but no] and speak Spanish, and there is discussion that Ron is their de facto leader, a man who is so self-confident and centered that they can all only work to be more like him. Carrie, bored to tears with her lifeless suburban existence [symbolized by the TV everyone wants her to get, so she’ll “never be alone”], is suitably intrigued.

So soon they’re falling into each other’s arms [there is some extreme makeover: old mill edition action as well], and you can tell that they’re having sex inside because we see a deer bolting across a field. Maybe he saw the copy of Walden. Anyway, NO ONE in Carrie’s circle can believe that she’s going to marry this GARDENER, and gossip shoots into the red zone. It’s a little difficult for a modern audience to really understand what the big problem is, but apparently the pressure to marry within one’s socioeconomic group was much bigger then, and much harder to resist. It’s also a bit jarring to see Carrie branded as a sexually wanton woman, because the ONLY reason she could possibly like this tree guy is for his body. Even her children turn on her, throwing a fit about her leaving the family home, and her daughter’s boyfriend dumps her because her mother is such a loose woman. It’s hard for us to believe these people are really THAT superficial, and also that they CARE so much what other people think, but I guess they didn’t have SELF Magazine back then.

Anyway, I’ll let you discover the rest on your own, should you choose to do so. A lot of it goes exactly as you might expect, though there are a few things that are effective in spite of that [as my friend Dan says: “I like things that are really obvious, yet still WORK”], and I must admit that I was surprised by the ending, which I totally expected to go a different way, but remember, whenever you see a deer, nature and vitality are on the march. You might also keep an eye out for any earthenware you see that may or may not symbolize suburban domesticity.

So, obviously lots of people love this movie, and it is in the Criterion Collection [ahem, Armageddon], and I could admire it, but I didn’t have too much of a feeling for it. Maybe it’s just that this type of movie just seems way to predictable [though as I said, I was surprised by several things], and the psychology too strange, the characters too weak-minded. So for me, the primary point of interest to this movie was as an adjunct to Far From Heaven.

They share several familiar elements; most notably the love interest of the gardener, who even wears similar clothes [in fact, all the clothes here obviously inspired those in Far From Heaven], the best friend who probably isn’t really there for you when the chips are down, the town gossip, the visit to the gardener’s greenhouse and a special place where he goes, etc. It goes on and on. But, whereas Far From Heaven took it upon itself to bring all the repressed sexuality and repressive society from the background to the forefront, this movie is really just an expression of its time. It’s beautifully made and controlled, but it’s just not so much my thing, so for me this movie’s primary importance is as an excellent point of contrast with Far From Heaven.

Should you watch it: 

Maybe, if you like melodramas. If you’re a big fan of Far From Heaven, however, you should definitely put this one on your list.

RELATED MOVIES:
FAR FROM HEAVEN
is a modern revision of this movie, but bringing all of what is understated and repressed in this movie into the foreground, where it can be commented upon and criticized.
ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL is a Fassbinder film also loosely based on this one.