02 June 2007

All That Heaven Allows

This movie got remade a few years back under the title Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore, and was a big hit. Having seen the original, let me tell you what, the remake is crap. This is one hell of a movie. It's the story of a widowed housewife who falls in love with the guy who prunes her trees. Unfortunately, it's the 50s, and nobody is really down with cross-class relationships.

So it's a tricky situation. That people will say vicious things about her behind her back and stop inviting her to cocktail parties if she marries Rock Hudson is one thing, but that her children will cut her off is another altogether. One is tempted, in situations like this, to say, well, screw the haters, do what you want. The incredible thing about this film is that it shows you how selfish such a decision is. Which isn't to say that it might not be the right thing to do.

What really makes this movie a masterpiece, in my mind, is the way that it depicts the fundamental powerlessness of the protagonist. She has almost no agency over her own life. It's not just that she is a member of a snooty upper class that has rigid rules and expectations and relentlessly punishes those who fail to conform; it's also that she has followed a certain path in her life, and it's not easy to deviate from it. And while this illicit love affair looks like a chance at freedom, it's not, really. Rock Hudson is a rebellious kind of guy who lives on the outskirts of society and has an "I do what I want attitude", but the thing is, there's no in-between with this guy. If our heroine takes up with him, it's going to be on his terms. He's completely unwilling to compromise - he's not going to meet her half-way. So basically, she can choose her prison. Some may be more pleasant than others, some might not feel like a prison, but at the end of the day, she's not really in charge.

Part of the reason why the movie works so well is because the main character, played by Jane Wyman, is so incredibly likeable. She's a lovely person. Smart, curious, cheerful, friendly, beautiful, and generally wonderful. She deserves the best. She deserves to be happy, and she doesn't ask for much to be so. But the world she lives in is an awfully cruel and harsh kind of place. And she's somewhat aware of this, and upset by it, but she never wallows in self-pity. She's a fighter. She's tough. She's amazing.

There are some cheesy aspects to this movie. A product of its times, it can't quite resist certain somewhat silly symbols, but you know, I kind of enjoy them. They operate rather cleverly as metaphors, I think. The young deer prancing around Hudson's house is a bit much, but the startled bird that suddenly takes flight at a moment of sexual tension is quite elegant.

Also, there are some lovely moments of dry humor. The supporting cast is portrayed with a sense of irony of the kind one finds in the novels of Jane Austen, or George Eliot. Wyman's daughter, a self-righteous prig who constantly quotes Freud, is particularly delightful in this respect. The old fuddy duddy who also makes a move on the protagonist is another good example.

Finally, there's a rather incredible subtext about the rise of tv in American society. Everyone keeps telling the heroine to get a tv because she's so lonely, and she constantly reiterates that she doesn't want one. And when her children buy her one on Christmas morning, it becomes this horrifying spectre in the living room, symbolizing, to me at least, the terrifying loneliness and boredom of these women, trapped at home with nothing to do.

Really, an incredible film. There's a good reason it's a classic.

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