Film Style in the Work of Douglas Sirk and Todd Haynes

In the aftermath of World War II, the nuptiality and fertility rates of the United States boomed as the U.S. entered one of the most iconic eras in American history. The early Atomic Era ushered in a wave of economic prosperity, as well as a desire to reinstate the patriarchal norms that had shifted during the war. The aesthetics of the 1950s remain prevalent in nostalgia and Americana today: discussions of the American Dream often elude to an idealized home with a “white picket fence” found in middle class suburbia, films such as Carol or Pleasantville take place in or are inspired by the 50s, and the large “retro” or “pinup” subculture takes inspiration from fashion after Dior’s “New Look” in 1947 more than any other period in the 20th century. One prominent element of 1950s iconography was the melodrama, the genre German-born director Douglas Sirk excelled at crafting. Nowadays, the melodrama doesn’t stand on its own and is rarely “played straight” by filmmakers; writers and directors usually add elements of satire, parody, or deconstruction to “update” the melodrama for a contemporary audience. One such filmmaker is Todd Haynes, whose 2002 film Far From Heaven appropriates the aesthetics and substance of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows while examining topics that would have been too taboo or transgressive for Sirk to address directly. Both films center around the conflict between the insular middle class of suburbia and the down-to-earth intellectual working class, as well as how the bonds of marriage stifle the autonomy of women, relegating them to wives, mothers, and caretakers. The major difference between the two is Far From Heaven’s retrospective look at attitudes towards homosexuality, race, and interracial relationships. Through their very prominent uses of film style, both filmmakers made their audiences question the status quo of the society they inhabited. Sirk used the subtext found in his style to hint at a more critical view of 1950s American society than outwardly apparent, whereas Haynes used the 50s as a setting to compare and contrast the world of 2002 with the world almost 5 decades before.

On the surface, All That Heaven Allows appears to be a trite tale about how love can conquer all, even the prejudices of a pompous country club. The story follows Cary, a widow with two college-age children trapped in the home of her dead husband. Cary longs for romance, not just the companionship the older man Harvey (whom her children desperately want her to marry) offers her, and freedom from the confines of her previous marriage. She meets Ron, the son of her late gardener, and immediately becomes enthralled with the change of pace his transcendentalist lifestyle gives her. He asks her to marry him, her friends and family don’t like him, and she breaks off the engagement, only to come rushing to his aid after inadvertently causing him to fall off a cliff. The film ends with Cary returning to her role as a caretaker, clutching Ron’s hand in hers as a deer (which Ron had hand-fed in an earlier scene) looks on at them from outside. While the film is certainly a bit of wish fulfillment for suburban women longing for romantic thrills, the subtext within the mise-en-scene and cinematography of All That Heaven Allows sends a bit of a different message than “love conquers all.”

Sirk uses color coding in costuming, sets, and props to symbolize different characters’ relationships with their society. The color red symbolizes sexuality and womanhood, most prominently in Cary’s red dress early in the film, but also in how red consumes Kay’s costuming as she matures and eventually gets engaged. The partygoers at Mick and Alida’s house wear mostly earth-toned clothing in contrast with Cary’s grey suit, making Cary stand out visually to emphasize how she doesn’t quite fit in as well as alluding to the partygoers’ closeness to nature. Even the cars represent the different types of people in the community: Cary’s pristine sedan embodies her character as a middle class suburban mother, while Ron’s dingy brown truck alludes to his nature as a non-materialistic working class bachelor. The mise-en-scene used to separate the worlds of Cary and Ron suggests a dichotomy of haves and have nots that cannot be overcome rather than a spectrum of wealth and class where individuals can elevate their economic standings.

Similarly, the cinematography and staging of Cary work together to illustrate how marriage traps women in patriarchal confines, particularly with the motifs of mirrors and windows. The mirror motif first appears early in the film, trapping Cary and her two children in its reflection as Kay literally talks about how ancient Egyptians used to seal the wives of deceased men along with them in their tombs. It returns with a vengeance towards the end of the film when Kay and Ned buy Cary a TV set, the salesman droning on about how it’s the only companion she’ll ever need, as the camera zooms in to reveal her morose expression staring back at her, stuck within the frame of the television.

While mirrors serve to illustrate how Cary feels suffocated by her late husband and children, windows represent her longing for freedom (and, by extension, Ron). When Ron asks her to marry him, the camera pans as Cary walks from the warm red hearth (a common symbol of family) over to the large window Ron had put in and stares out into the blue winter, the light rendering her and Ron in silhouette. After reconciling her doubts about marrying Ron, the camera once again depicts Ron and Cary in front of the window, this time in a medium long shot with warm undertones in the coloration rather than the more intimate medium close-up of the instance before, suggesting the acceptance of a return to the institution of marriage. After breaking up with Ron, the front window of Cary’s house acts as a barrier between the happiness she desires and the conventions of society trapping her in her home, the camera zooming in on her to highlight the tears streaming down her face as children pass by singing Christmas carols. Most significantly, in the final shot of the film, the camera tilts up from Ron bedridden on the couch as Cary asserts that she’s home to the giant window, nature looking on fondly at the pair, as the film ends. The windows throughout the film, in particular the large window in the mill, suggest that the freedom from societal conventions Cary needs for her relationship with Ron is out of reach, blocked by an invisible force, as even though the film ends optimistically, none of the conflicts created by this force have been resolved.

In Far From Heaven, Haynes took the color symbolism in Sirk’s film and amplified it, matching characters with props and their surroundings to enhance the narrative. As Cathy perches on her couch in a vibrant blue dress answering questions for a local magazine, she mirrors a Magnatech advertisement on the wall behind her, illustrating her embodiment of the ultimate wife and mother. Later, during a lunch date with her friends where Cathy awkwardly realizes she’s the only one whose husband never has sex with her, not only are all the women dressed in color-coordinated outfits, but the color scheme makes them blend into the fall foliage of Hartford, representing their seamless integration into not only their community, but also to the gender roles expected of them. Throughout the film, Cathy primarily wears bold red, green, or blue outfits, and like All That Heaven Allows the dramatic lighting often takes on the same hues to heighten the intensity of the scene and sense of the characters’ emotions. Green lighting in particular indicates unease, such as when Cathy picks Frank up from the station in the beginning or when Cathy discovers Frank kissing a man in his office (this scene even has Cathy wear a green coat to accentuate this stylistic choice). Those three colors come together when Cathy—wearing a green dress and hat—meets Raymond in the modern art gallery, gazing at a Miró painting that epitomizes the contrast of blue and red as Raymond posits that modern art “pares [divinity] down to the basic parts of shape and color.”

The cinematography often adds a sense of unease throughout the film, mirroring the discomfort the characters feel about the artifice and hollowness in their lives. In many shot-reverse-shot sequences with Cathy and Raymond, when we see Cathy’s face, Raymond’s head is completely out of frame, rendering him a headless, intimidating form, illustrating Cathy’s unease talking to a black man. In scenes set in the Whitaker house such as when Frank tries to have sex with Cathy or when the children open presents on Christmas day, the film utilizes long shots to emphasize the the vast emptiness of the house, mirroring the emptiness and loneliness of the characters. The short focal lengths used to create wide shots throughout the film make the characters seem small within the frame compositions, as if they’re swallowed up by their environments (which they often blend into due to mise-en-scene), exacerbating the conformity present in Hartford.

Both All That Heaven Allows and Far From Heaven use film style to highlight the facade of tolerance and progressiveness that Americans perpetuate. In the beginning of All That Heaven Allows, Kay waxes on about how glad she is that women aren’t considered property anymore and widows aren’t walled up with their deceased husbands, even though Cary is obviously an object to the community and to her family, and she’s metaphorically trapped in her late husband’s tomb. (In a self-aware response to Kay saying the practice doesn’t happen anymore, Cary jokes, “Doesn’t it?”) The community and children pretend to support Cary in her romantic endeavors, but only if she chooses the man they want her to marry: Harvey. But when Cary deviates from the patriarchal norm, marrying someone younger than her from a lower socioeconomic standing, they ostracize and threaten her until she conforms to their practices. Even after Cary abandons her dull, comfortable life for Ron at the end, the film ends with the uncomfortable reality that Ron and Cary are still outcasts whom Cary’s family and friends will never truly accept. This ending suggests a discrepancy between the romantic ideal of upward social mobility and the reality of America’s rigid caste system; the sign for Cary’s country club embodies this rigidity, reading, “for members exclusively.” In the midst of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, rampant social conformity was a symptom of widespread fear of outsiders. Deviation from the conservative, consumerist lifestyle of American suburbia, such as the transcendentalist lifestyle lived by Ron and his associates, indicated a rejection of so-called “American values” that Cary hesitates to abandon. The visual distinction between Ron’s circle and the country club acts as a physical representation of how othered Ron and his friends are from mainstream suburbia.

Similarly, in Far From Heaven, there are multiple scenes where characters talk about how progressive they are, highlighting Cathy especially as being “kind to Negroes.” Cathy herself has one particularly hilarious moment in the art gallery with Raymond where she awkwardly rambles about how she’s “not prejudiced.” Yet despite all their talk, the citizens of Hartford—even the children—are not even subtly racist, glaring at Cathy for daring to speak to a black man in public, throwing rocks at Raymond’s daughter Sarah because her father has a “white girl,” and ostracizing Cathy for nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors about her relationship with Raymond. Notably, in All That Heaven Allows, Cary’s best friend Sara defends her in the country club despite believing that Cary’s making a mistake marrying Ron, while in Far From Heaven, Cathy’s best friend Eleanor immediately turns against her after she indicates she might have minutely romantic feelings towards Raymond, indicating an even larger disparity between surface progressivism and deep seated bigotry than in Sirk’s film. Yet unlike Cary, who lacked agency and direction but at least had some protective instinct towards Ron, Cathy directly lies about her relationship with Raymond, claiming she didn’t go with him to a restaurant not only to protect her reputation but also to distance herself from the shame their relationship gives her. While Cary tries to be the ultimate mother, putting her fickle, selfish children’s needs in front of her own, Cathy only embodies the image of the perfect mother, like the Magnatech poster seen early in the film: when Raymond tells her he and Sarah are moving to Baltimore, Cathy doesn’t hesitate to offer to join him, not thinking about her children stuck in the middle of a divorce.

Another theme both films examine is how marriage traps women into unfulfilling relationships or lifestyles. For Cary, her marriage to Martin defines her even after his death, the house remaining the same as when he was alive, including one of his trophies on the mantelpiece. With the exception of the bright red dress towards the beginning, Cary wears mostly dark or dreary clothing typical of a widow; when she wears the aforementioned red number, Kay commends her for wearing “something besides that old black velvet.” But even after getting together with Ron her wardrobe stays desaturated, suggesting that despite outward appearances, her situation hasn’t changed much. Even before she decides to stay with Ron at the end, her life was never truly free from the control of men: in his father’s absence, Ned takes up the mantle of patriarch, waiting up for his mother to return from the party with Ron framed in the manner of a stern father admonishing his teenage child for staying out too late. Cary at her core wants love, be it romantic, familial, or platonic, but the death of her first husband inhibits her pursuit of romantic love in his absence; her love for Ron is add odds with, as Ned puts it, her “sense of obligation to [Martin’s] memory.”

Cathy, meanwhile, does not cherish her status as a wife or mother, instead craving the more carnal aspects of marriage. When her husband cannot satisfy her needs for sex or romance, she turns to Raymond for companionship, toward the end of the film developing one-sided romantic feelings towards him. But her marriage to Frank prevents her from ever getting what she wants: if she’s faithful (unlike him) to her husband, she’ll remain sexually frustrated, but if she starts an affair with Raymond, her reputation will be ruined and she’d put Raymond and his daughter in danger. (In fact, she doesn’t even start an actual affair with Raymond, yet all of the above still happens over the course of the film.) The cinematography and set design of the Whitaker household, which minimize the space figures take up in the frame, illustrate the emptiness Cathy’s seemingly perfect life provides her; after Frank and Cathy get divorced, the film reveals that this emptiness is also literal in the sense that the family has no savings, nothing to fall back on after Cathy is stuck with the children and Frank loses his job.The 1950s were a time of conservative conformity, and any deviation from “traditional American values” resulted in expulsion from the elitist general public. Yet those traditional values benefit only certain groups (men, upper-middle to upper-class people, white people) while trapping others in unfulfilling and displeasing lifestyles. Douglas Sirk and Todd Haynes explore the consequences of that conformity in All That Heaven Allows and Far From Heaven respectively through film style, with both films criticizing how marriage takes away the autonomy of women in their pursuits of happiness and how shallow the tolerance Americans purport to have is.