Sunday, 22 November 2015

In Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, objects speak volumes: the shards of a broken teapot, mended and broken again, then discarded on an open fire; a branch cut from a tree, given to rich widow Cary Scott by gentleman gardener Ron Kirby, her glances at which bookend an uncomfortable night at a country club cocktail party; the vivid flowers and angled mirrors that seem to reverberate throughout Sirk's cinema, present and prominent as always, offering glimpses of fleeting lives lived beautifully. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the large trophy that sits proudly above the fireplace in the large suburban home in which Cary, five days out of the week, lives alone. Her husband, whose life is never discussed and whose name is never spoken, won the trophy as a young man, but for what, exactly, remains unclear. The only context for its existence is relayed by Harvey, a respectable businessman and suitor of Cary, and an old friend of her husband. He tells the family, including Cary's two grown children, Ned and Kay, after refusing a second cocktail: "You know, my reform started the night your father won this trophy. He filled it with champagne and made us drink it. I can still remember it." In spite of this long-standing relationship with their father, the two children see Harvey as a suitable new husband for their mother. Kay pointedly tells her: "I like Harvey. He's pleasant, amusing, and he acts his age... All in all, he's remarkably civilised, and the only bachelor around here," while Ned calls him "sir" and makes him a "Scott special" cocktail.

Cary, however, is more interested in marrying Ron, whose carefree and boundless love for life enthrals her, while to him, she is unlike the other society women whose gardens he works on. She treats him as a person , offering him coffee and showing a genuine interest in his life and his work, with little to no regard for the class and age divide that is evident (and indecent) to many of her friends, at least at first. Their relationship is a blissful one, and Kay soon tidies her former husband's trophy, a relic of the life she is trying to put behind her, away into the basement. But Ned, already against her mother's choice of husband, notices the empty mantelpiece, and confronts his mother. "Haven't you any sense of obligation to father's memory," he says. "How can you even think about marrying a man like Kirby when you've been father's wife?" The children want her to be happy, but only if it aligns with their idea of happiness - wealth and sophistication. Her friends at the club snootily share Ned's disdain, and baseless rumours persist that Cary was seeing Ron when her husband was still alive. Nothing of the sort is said of Harvey, of course, even if his romantic pursuit of his friend's widow is more suspect than Ron's - he drank champagne from his friend's trophy as a young man, and now he wants his wife. But then he's "civilised" and, perhaps more importantly, rich, while Ron is seen as an uneducated thug. At a cocktail party, Howard, an odious businessman with eyes for Cary, drunkenly forces himself on her, and Ron rushes over to drag him off. An unmistakably noble gesture, but as the mortified couple leave, one of the partygoers fearfully says to another: "why, he might've killed poor Howard, and in Sarah's lovely house, too."

It's a feeling shared by all of them. Ron can do nothing to alleviate their pre-emptively negative impressions of him. But love will endure. Even as her friends turn on her, even as her children ignore her, even as her world falls apart around her, Cary never retrieves the trophy from the basement. She never truly loses hope, even when all seems lost. The door will always be open for true love.

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