All That Heaven Allows – Escaping the Suburban Nightmare

By the 1950’s, the bourgeois values of the middle class were under threat by both women’s taste of independence during the World War II as well as cold war paranoia about the communist abolition of gender class. American post war melodrama acknowledges that traditional roles, although emotionally unfulfilling, are safe and healthy.
In this context, the films of Douglas Sirk employ visual conventions through a surplus of material objects and interior décor that manifest as a bourgeois desire for social order. His use of overly saturated color represents emotional states. Tragic characters are framed in boxes to express psychological imprisonment. Conflicts arise when women project a fantasy within the confines of a patriarchal system as love is thwarted by an adherence to social convention and family values. These conflicts are never resolved or satisfied and exists for the sheer pleasure of the viewer to experience a feminine perspective.
In All that Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) spontaneous and passionate love is hindered by the perceived value of social standing and family name. The film reinforces traditional ideas about domesticity and gender but not motherhood. Suburban widow Carry Scott (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her landscaper Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), who lives a natural and unpretentious lifestyle. Without explicit information, it is implied that the couple have a passionate physical relationship. Ron and his circle of friends live by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Walden as their bible and indulge in a lifestyle presented as an alternative to the existing social structure. Ron Kirby is almost Zen-like in appeal as the architype of the robust, natural American male yet he looms as a danger to the suburban middleclass values of his neighbors. In contrast to Ron, married men lurk in the dark corners rooms and can only relate to women as sexual objects or wives. They speak in secretive ways seeking affairs with the women around them.
Despite their love for one another Carry feels pressured by the opinions of her social class. Her family’s reaction to her engagement is to defend the house rather than feel joy over her new-found love. The children are spoiled, self-centered beings that care more for material possessions than their mother’s happiness. The daughter presents herself as a modern woman, educated and independent. She prides herself on self-liberation, but when a man compliments her on her beauty, she swoons and the façade of an interest in Freud and psychoanalysis melts away. In truth, she is as traditional as her mother is. The film suggests that all women truly need to complete them is a good man or in Carry’s case, a new television.
In the end, Carry gets her man but only after Ron is symbolically rendered impotent in a fall, neutralizing his threat to the existing social order. The injury also serves to punish Carry for embracing Ron’s hedonist lifestyle and rejecting the conservative ideal that places motherhood before personal gratification. After the credits roll, Carry will return to the safe confines of the suburbs alongside a physically neutered Ron as part of the new decor.

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