Do you want to follow your heart and live an uncertain life full of love, adventure, and fulfillment, or would you prefer to live a staid and comfortable life, where tomorrow will bring precisely what you expect? From the way I phrased the question, you might presume that a life of adventure sounds immensely attractive to me. Unfortunately, despite my propensity to daydream about moving out to the country, throughout my adult life, I’ve found it difficult to pull myself away from the dull comforts of a steady paycheck and a conventional career path. We all struggle with life choices like this from time to time. We feel like it might be time to take that big leap of faith, but can’t muster the courage to do so. Sometimes we leap, and other times we step back from the ledge, plonk ourselves in front of the TV, and watch twenty episodes of Bob’s Burgers.
In All That Heaven Allows, Cary [Jane Wyman], an upper-class widow is grappling with exactly these sorts of choices. Does she want to live an isolated but familiar life within the cool embrace of her community or an uncertain, socially unacceptable, and likely fulfilling life with her lover, Ron [Rock Hudson]? Virtually the entire film is spent following Cary as she navigates the precarious ledge between society and her own happiness, but one scene in particular merges these story elements with visual symbolism, further elucidating Cary’s predicament.
In a pivotal scene half way through the film, Cary grapples with the prospect of marrying Ron for the first time. By using light and shadow as well as frames within frames effectively, this scene enhances the themes that are at play through the entire film. The scene begins as Cary and Ron share a tender moment appreciating the cozy new home that Ron has created. At this point, Ron tells Cary that the work he’s put into the millhouse is so that they can get married. As Cary’s expression transitions from joy to concern, the two are framed together.
This framing is particularly effective in portraying Cary’s dilemma. She’s standing in the center of the frame between a blue wall to her left a red wall, with Ron, on the right. At this point, it’s clear that Cary is riven by her situation. On the one hand, she loves Ron and wants to be with him. On the other hand, she’s afraid of the consequences of breaching the norms of upper class society. What will her friends think? How will her children react? Red or Blue? She must pick.
At this point, Cary leaves Ron’s embrace and walks over to the window where the two of them stand in front of a large window.
Cary tries to separate herself from Ron by saying that marriage would be impossible. She’s too afraid of incurring the harsh judgment of society to stay with him. Again, the framing reflects Cary’s intentions by framing the couple in separate panes of a large window. Something has come between these two, and it’s casting a shadow over their relationship.
In addition to the framing, the two are presented here as silhouettes. This, too, reflects Cary’s mindset. She’s deeply concerned with the uncertainty of the situation. She doesn’t know if following her heart and marrying Ron will work out. She doesn’t know whether she and Ron can be together at all. Her future has been plunged into darkness.
But Ron is unwilling to let Cary go so easily.
Ron breaks through the frame separating him from Cary with a passionate kiss, still as silhouettes. They are briefly framed within the same windowpane, but there is still a lingering sense of uncertainty as their impasse remains unresolved.
Cary again steps away, elucidating her fears about the uncertainty of the way life will work out if she leaves it.
Again, the two are framed separately, with Ron in front of the window and Cary in front of a wall. Cary talks about how she doesn’t know how to live like Ron and can’t see how things will work out. A life with Ron is steeped in uncertainty, and the film reflects this by showing Ron as a shadow, in contrast to Cary, who is fully lit.
For much of the rest of the scene Ron remains a silhouette, as Cary, in the face of an uncertain life with him decides she needs to break off the relationship.
It’s notable that Ron’s only fully lit again when he expresses tenderness towards Cary as he helps her put on a pair of boots and stay warm. For Cary, this is a moment of clarity where she realizes that no amount of social pressure can override her feelings for the kind man she’s fallen in love with.
They proceed to kiss passionately, this time fully lit, in contrast to their previous kiss. This is not a kiss shrouded in uncertainty, like the previous one, but instead reveals the certainty of their love for one another.
In a final coda to the scene, Cary affirms her love for Ron, stating, “It won’t be easy. There’ll be a lot of things that… you have to help me.”
The scene concludes with a shot of them holding each other as silhouettes and framed within a single windowpane. They look out into an uncertain future knowing that, at least they are together.
As the scene concluded, I was left feeling a sense of relief that the two of them would remain together in the face of societal pressure. At the same time, seeing their embrace on this deep winter night made me fearful for the challenges ahead for the couple. While the dialogue on its own would certainly have communicated these points effectively, it’s through thoughtful visual construction that this scene is able to fully explore the emotional states of its characters. Darkness and light. Separate and together. The visual themes present in this scene complement the action perfectly.