Director: Todd Haynes
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
The United States, presumably across different times. There are three separate narratives, with regular cross-cutting between all three. The first, Hero, features a seven year old boy, Richie, who has murdered his father and according to his mother, jumps from the window and flies away. In documentary style, Richie’s mother and several characters close to him reveal the circumstances that led up to this tragedy. Classmates, teachers and neighbours remember Richie as a difficult child. His mother reveals that Richie murdered his father because he witnesses his father violently beating his mother. The second, Horror, a scientist named Dr Graves captures the sex drive, a discovery that receives scorn from his contemporaries but he endeavours to continue his research. After accidentally ingesting this serum, he becomes a leprous sex attacker on the run from the police, only able to turn to his colleague Nancy Olsen. The third, Homo, is set in an all-male prison. John Broom is a petty thief imprisoned once more. He recognises one inmate, Jack Bolton, whom he was acquainted with when imprisoned decades before when he witnessed his humiliation at the hands of other prisoners. Broom then rapes Bolton before recalling what he witnessed.
‘Poison’ was Todd Haynes’ debut feature, although he had previously stirred controversy with the wonderfully inventive 1987 short ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’, which chronicled the life of the late singer, ingeniously using Barbie dolls (carved according to the extent of her anorexia), but was removed from distribution for copyright infringement, notwithstanding the fact that the rest of the Carpenters were portrayed in a negative light.
An early film of the New Queer Cinema movement (which also includes the early films of Gregg Araki and Tom Kalin), ‘Poison’ is a triptych of narratives based on the works of Jean Genet, notably ‘The Thief’s Journal’, ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ and ‘The Miracle of the Rose’. Although individually these narratives are very different in tone and content, they are related by themes of sexuality and violence, and the central characters in each tale are outsiders; Richie has become isolated and withdrawn because of domestic troubles, Dr Graves has been made a pariah because of his physical deterioration, and John Bloom has been rejected since he was a child, and by spending time in and out of jail, he has rejected the society that rejected him. Although Bloom has excluded himself from ‘normal’ society for good, Richie and Dr Graves are on the periphery. In Richie’s case, Haynes uses a typical melodrama scenario; that of a superficially perfect American middle class family where not everything is as it seems. Indeed, as the documentary of Richie progresses, Haynes allows this façade to crumble, with even Richie’s mother unable to paper over the cracks, confessing to first adultery and then murder. For Dr Graves, his search for truth and knowledge produced radical research that society did not want to accept. Afflicted by his research, society excludes him further.
Much has been written about ‘Horror’ acting as an AIDS allegory. Dr Graves’ condition turns him into a sexual predator and is so contagious that just one touch or more upon his ‘victims’ afflicts them with the same physically repulsive disease he has. The public hysteria towards Graves’ condition surely reflects the equally hysterical reaction in the late 1980s towards the AIDS epidemic, which had just entered the public consciousness and was considered a homosexual plague. ‘Poison’s’ prologue quotes Genet, almost predicting this hysteria: “the whole world is dying of panicky fright”. This was a theme that Haynes would return to and develop with 1995 film ‘Safe’, in which Julianne Moore’s unknown illness was seen as a reference to AIDS and/or social conformity. Certainly by the early 1990s, AIDS has seldom been approached by any American filmmakers. It was not until 1993 with ‘Philadelphia’ that Hollywood would raise the issue; therefore ‘Poison’ is a remarkably groundbreaking film for its sensitive and sympathetic approach to the subject.
For a debut feature, Haynes demonstrates an incredibly mature sense of the visual nature of film. All three narratives are filmed not only in different styles; a documentary, a 1950’s black and white B-movie pastiche and in Genet-esque fashion (referencing the 1950 film ‘Un Chant D’Amour) respectively, but also in different colour tones, which should be of no surprise to those who saw the brilliant use of colour in Haynes’ 2002 Sirk-inspired ‘Far From Heaven’. The most notable example of this is in ‘Homo’, which alternates between past and present with distinctive and different colour palettes. The present scenes are shot in very dark blues with shadows. The past scenes are shot in much brighter colours, almost artificially bright, with Bolton’s humiliation in reform school shown in a highly stylised fashion, but which becomes increasingly difficult to absorb as we witness fellow inmates spitting in the face of Bolton, reminiscent of the kind of sexual degradation seen in Pasolini’s ‘Salo’.
Haynes’ debut suffers from a degree of amateurism, mainly in terms of acting, but is certainly an incredibly inventive and impressive first film, displaying a composure that belies his inexperience at this point. Clearly though it showed that Haynes was a gifted film maker who would be capable of going onto greater things, as indeed was the case with both ‘Safe’ and ‘Far From Heaven’ in particular. Innovative in terms of themes it addresses and in the boundaries it aims to push, ‘Poison’ is a fascinating exploration of the links between sex and violence, and the consequences of defying society’s narrow moral boundaries.