October 27, 2009

Siskel Center revisits tragic romance

One of the greatest stories ever told comes to the Gene Siskel Film Center next month as part of its The Art of the Remake series. It is the classic narrative of scorned love and its consequences, told in three different films for a total of five screenings throughout the month. The story begins with Douglas Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, starring Jane Wyman (famous today as Ronald Reagan’s first wife) and Rock Hudson, and ends with Far From Heaven, the 2002 film by Todd Haynes starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid.

All That Heaven Allows is the originator of this tale that is interpreted in the other two films. It tells the story of Cary Scott (Wyman), an upper-middle class suburban widow who falls in love with her gardener (Hudson). The couple is quickly engaged, and Cary is left to face both the public gossip about her relationship and her own family’s disapproval, which culminates in her children threatening to cut off all ties with her. The pressure becomes too much, and Cary cancels the wedding. Choosing her familial obligations over her lover, she suffers from the pains of lost love for the rest of the film. Far From Heaven is essentially the same story, even keeping with the 1950s New England setting. However, it also brings many of the implicit themes of Sirk’s film to the forefront, including racism and homophobia (Rock Hudson was one of the first Hollywood actors to pass away from AIDS).

Both films are excellent. However, the best adaptation of the story comes from the German master filmmaker Reiner Werner Fassbinder. His 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul transplants Sirk’s story to 1970s Germany. He shot the film in 15 days between two larger productions, which today are dwarfed by the genius of Ali. He tells the story of Emmi, an older widow who one night, while trying to find refuge from the rain, finds herself in a bar frequented by Moroccan gastarbeiters (German immigrant laborers). The German barkeeper jokes that one of the laborers, the titular Ali, should dance with her. He and Emmi begin to form a friendship, and driven by their mutual lonelines, their friendship turns to love. As is expected, they soon marry and begin to face scorn from Emmi’s children and coworkers, as well as from Ali’s friends.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a film of unparalleled sadness. It is the type of film that leaves a hole in your heart that won’t easily heal for weeks to come. Fassbinder artfully depicts Emmi and Ali’s fight for acceptance of their love. He squeezes Ali and Emmi closely together in tight shots in private, but, in public, moves the camera back and surrounds the couple with space, showing waiters and others looking on in disgust at them. The film closes on a beautiful and tragic note, the only way it could possibly end.