Imitation of Life (1959)

Douglas Sirk | 2hr 5min

It is an unusual family portrait which Douglas Sirk paints in Imitation of Life, at least in the context of 1950s America. Half of its members are white, the other half Black, and there are no men to be found within it at all. Love interests skirt around the edges, but otherwise the film’s feminine sensitivities flourish across boundaries of age, class, and race, emerging in delicate cinematic paintings of privilege and social adversity.

On one side of the family we have Lora, an aspiring white actress and single mother, raising her daughter, Susie. A chance encounter at the beach one day leads to her meeting Annie, a Black single mother, and her fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane, who Susie takes to right away. These four women become inseparable, and Lora soon offers Annie and Sarah Jane a place in their home while she gets her acting career off the ground.

Superb framing of this family, often singling out one character and separating them from the others.
The domestic architecture and furniture of wrapping around characters from high and low angles. Note the angles of the beams pointing towards Lora in the foreground, as well as the eye lines of Susie and Steve.

Along Lora and Susie’s narrative thread, we find a mother growing more distant from her daughter due to her fame and demanding schedule. The cosy green drapes and patterned wallpaper of Susie’s childhood home wrap around the small family in a soothing embrace, its décor of ceiling fans and light fixtures hanging in the foreground of gorgeously composed frames. As Lora finds greater success though, Sirk’s production design takes a turn to opulence. The open spaces of the mansion they move into are adorned with bright flowers and candles rising up in the foreground, while decorative mirrors in backgrounds make rooms feel even larger than they physically are. Such exquisite furnishing allows for beautifully elegant imagery, though it is certainly at least colder than before, setting the scene for a burgeoning gap between Susie and Lora as both develop feelings for the same man.

The same day these strangers meet, they all come home to Lora’s place. They are confined to small spaces in compositions like these, while Sirk clutters his foreground with the ceiling fan and light fixtures.
A distinct stylistic difference between the two family homes. When Lora becomes famous, flowers and decorative mirrors make for some lavishly staged shots.

It is by nature of their unequal social standings that Susie’s problems seem a little insignificant when played out next to Sarah Jane’s, who chooses to shun her Black heritage so that she may pass as white. She has seen the ugliness of America’s intolerance in its pre-civil rights era, and yet the bitterness that has been bred from that is not directed at its perpetrators, but rather her own mother. Annie, meanwhile, recognises that anguish in her young daughter, and can’t quite figure out how to reconcile her innocence with the future she faces.

“How do you explain to your child she was born to be hurt?”

Sirk is frequently visually trapping Sarah Jane in tight and concealed spaces – behind grates, blinds, and leering men.

Sarah Jane’s disdain for her mother is crushing, in one scene even driving her to go so far as to put on a mocking show of servitude to a guest, as if that were all there is to her ethnicity. Above all else she wants to be looked at with desire, so when she finally comes of age, she runs away to join a club where she can blend in with a troupe of white chorus girls. Though she claims she doesn’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with being Black, she clearly does not possess the empathy to see how similar her actions are to the strains of racism she is familiar with.

Powerful blocking between Sarah Jane and her mother – Sirk rendering the complete fragmentation of a mother-daughter relationship by splitting them between foreground and background, and divided by lines in the mise-en-scène.

Perhaps we wouldn’t feel the same compassion for Sarah Jane if Sirk didn’t treat her suffering with such tenderness in his staging of this melodrama. When her white boyfriend confronts her about her true ethnicity, she is diminished off to the side of the frame as nothing but a reflection in a window, and the moment he grows incensed Sirk quickly pans his camera to the right to reveal him unnervingly towering over her. When she returns home after being beaten, he shoots all four women standing on separate levels of a staircase, their standing evident in where they are situated – Lora on top, Annie further down with her back to the camera, Susie concealed behind a plant, and Sarah Jane caught in the middle, all lines in the shot pointing to her. Even as characters deliberately pursue contemptuous lines of attack against each other, Sirk never loses sight of the raw pain which motivates them, all four women being destined to struggle in a patriarchal society to different degrees.

Sirk diminished Sarah Jane’s stature in this simmering confrontation by relegating her off to the side as a reflection, then panning his camera to her just at the right moment.
Wonderful use of stairways to bring levels to the web of dynamics between all four women. All lines in the mise-en-scène here point to Sarah Jane, but the ignored child, Susie, is also shoved off to the side behind a pot plant.

With such an interconnected relationship between Sirk’s vibrant mise-en-scène and his emotionally rich characters, it isn’t difficult to trace his influences back through the decades of cinematic expressionism. Stylish sentimentalism flows all through his dialogue and cinematography, outlining parallel paths of generational conflict as set out by two pairs of mothers and daughters. Unlike other Sirkian melodramas of this era though, there are few happy endings to be found in Imitation of Life. Instead, it is in the separation of children from their parents where we find hope that they might mature into adults, blooming like those floral icons of delicate growth scattered all through the film.

True to the form of the film’s mise-en-scène, flowers decorate Annie’s funeral, just as they decorated her life.

Imitation of Life is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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