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Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Close To Sirk

By Kevin John

Melodrama is a genre of surfaces, of obviousnesses. Gesture, music and mise-en-scene (what's put in the frame) take on a lacquered life of their own in the cloistered, well-appointed living rooms of melodramatic form. Placed into relief as hyperreal encrustations, they exceed the machinations of the story, running underneath or at the side, so that a caress or a piece of furniture or a swell on the soundtrack conveys the unmentionable. Whatever gets repressed at the level of the narrative rises up to the surface with these pre- or extra-linguistic markers.

The classic example of this conversion is Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life" from 1959. Sarah Jane Johnson (Susan Kohner) is a black girl who can pass for white. Her mother, Annie (Juanita Moore), works as a maid for alabaster stage and screen star Lora Meredith (Lana Turner). Repeatedly throughout the film, Sarah Jane is assured that she has never been treated any differently from Lora's blindingly white daughter Susie (Sandra Dee). But scan the image (for costume, for how the characters are placed within the frame, for musical cues) and a different story emerges.

2002 saw the release of two homages to Sirk, both from gay directors: François Ozon's "8 Women" and Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven." That melodrama should appeal to a gay sensibility is no surprise, given the genre's pathos for second-class citizens and its ever-thwarted promise of transparent communication (oh, if we only could be 100% certain that that look or walk absolutely means gayness). But the two men differ radically on how they employ their glossy finishes.

With its green tartan walls screaming forward, the set design in "8 Women" is so hypnotically present that it threatens to overwhelm the murder-mystery story right from the start. But as soon as we get situated into the space, the characters (played by such French cinema luminaries as Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert) burst into song at various intervals, dealing further blows to the supremacy of the narrative. Eventually, the film fails to contain its own excesses, as perpetually revealed secrets stall any sense of linear progression. Gesture, music and mise-en-scene no longer provide commentary on the narrative; they infiltrate all dramatic curves utterly until they practically disappear into exhilarating incoherence.

"Far From Heaven," an update of Sirk's 1955 "All That Heaven Allows," works the opposite way. Since Haynes' picture tells the story of repression in a 1950s middle-class neighborhood, nothing appears to be repressed at the level of its tight narrative. It confronts head-on the era's social stigmas for a white housewife (Julianne Moore) falling in love with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) while her husband (Dennis Quaid) comes to terms with his homosexuality.

Watching "Far From Heaven," one can sense a gay man watching classical Hollywood cinema, seizing upon the gestures of secondary characters and wishing he didn't have to peer through gaps in the narrative fabric to see them. In his capacity as director, then, Haynes makes sure gesture, music and mise-en-scene are no longer in conflict with narrative. So where Ozon allows his surface to take over, Haynes ensures the narrative leaves nothing incommunicable.

But more than any other films I've seen this year, both films demonstrate that glitter and direct expression do not preclude art in film; they're survival tactics for those with whom art often fails to communicate.

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