Based on the works of Jean Genet, Poison, the first theatrical film of Todd Haynes, is a grotesque, pessimistic, and extremely disturbing picture that is both celebration of misery and cruelty and a reflection of human tenderness and sexual freedom. The film interweaves three very different stories together into one narrative line. The film goes back and forth between each story, and each story is completely different from one another in theme, content, style, musical choice, genre, and tone. One story, titled ‘Horror’, is shot in the style of a 50s B-horror film and is about a scientist who manages to alienate the human sex drive into a vial of fluid. Unfortunately, he accidentally drinks the fluid and mutates into a blistering pile of pus and proceeds to go on an infectious rampage, spreading his disease to all he comes into contact with. Another story, titled ‘Homo’, is a sinister, gritty, muddy, and emotionally tender love story set in an underground prison of some kind in which two male prisoners slowly descend into an obsessive and violent S&M relationship. The story contains flashbacks to their traumatic youth. The remaining story, titled ‘Hero’, is shot in what appears to be a documentary format in which several members of a distraught community are interviewed about a recent bizarre tragedy involving a disturbed family. A little boy named Richard shoots his sexually abusive father and then flies out the window, and the entire incident was witnessed by his mother who considers her son to be an angel sent from God to watch over her.
Poison is a rather strangely enchanting film. One of the most enchanting things about it is that it never quite gives you any time to breathe. From frame one, the film plunges you into a world full of cruelty and chaotic confusion and you’re left on your own to pretty much sort through the images. It’s all rather elegantly pulled off. Haynes manages to capture a lot of the charm and the overall structure from each film medium his stories represent. With ‘Hero’ he manages to present that optimistic 50s family sitcom outlook gone slightly wrong found in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. He does this by using a lot of bright colors and simplistic architecture. The effect is unsettling, but it is also strangely hypnotic in it’s own weird way. By using mostly mastershots and by allowing a little more time for talking heads, he’s able to create a real creepy sense of foreboding fury that fits really well with the other two stories. With ‘Homo’, he uses a lot of low angles and close-ups. He also uses more natural lighting, at least in the scenes that aren’t flashbacks. It’s a much more testosterone driven story, and so the dark look really helps to highlight a lot of the sweatier, more vulnerable aspects of the bodies of these characters. This adds a much more psychological aspect of male sexuality to the film that mentally carries over to the other two stories, making ‘Hero’ seem ever so slightly more perverted to the average viewer and making ‘Horror’ seem a lot more metaphorical and realistic in some ways. With ‘Horror’, we get the bleakest and most disturbing tale of the three. In order to create that classic horror movie feel, Todd Haynes uses a lot more fade-outs, more specific music cues, and noticeably melodramatic narration. He allows us to really feel sorry for this disturbed character, and that feeling of uncleanliness pervades the rest of the film as a result.
It seems to me that Haynes wanted to create this film in order to develop an intricate puzzle of how genre pictures can manipulate other genre pictures, the viewing experience of each picture, how watching one sort of theme in one picture can invisibly affect a separate viewing of another picture, and to recreate the style of multiple viewing itself. His personal reasons for making this film, however, seem to be much more complicated and rather scary. Poison is what I would consider the quintessential gay picture. It has everything I love and hate about most gay themed films (the depressing endings, the perverted camerawork, the abundant strange behavior, the gratuitous sex), but it’s self-awareness is so fun to watch that it rises above all the schlock and finds it’s own path toward narrative freedom. With ‘Homo’, we get a disturbing gay love story about men who physically hurt one another. With ‘Horror’, we have what amounts to a metaphor for disease and infection that most viewers will take as an AIDS metaphor (though Haynes likely denies it). With ‘Hero’, we have the painful tale of growing up, being different, being bullied, having unusual urges, and being misunderstood by everyone, which are all things that many gay youths often feel.
By compiling all of these tales as one narrative picture and by quietly running particular moods during different periods of the film, Todd Haynes has managed to make a film that captures everything I could ever want in a film. He establishes a main character, a problem, and the resulting events, and he goes about as bluntly as he can with each one without ever attempting to be preachy. Poison is a film so full of life and unforgettable moments that it’s really hard to not appreciate it. Anyone who does not get chills watching the opening credits, which depict the finding of a gun by little Richard, will simply not get the same feeling of satisfaction out of the film that many will. I think one of the things that makes this film so appealing is that it is always so fearless in heading toward chaos and freakish events and it really makes you yearn for more films that take more chances. One of the things I loved about this film was how it wasn’t afraid to portray gay sexuality in an ugly light. Sex in this film is often very quiet, uncomfortable, tender, emotional, frustrating, and repulsive. I feel that films are too quick to try and simplify sexual behavior, but all the sexual content in this film is tinged by violence. We have, for example, the anal rape scene in the ‘Homo’ story that garnered the film an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. As brutal as it is, the film refuses to shy away from the emotion on both ends. As a result we are left with a scene that, at a distance, is a terrible rape scene. However, it is a rape scene that contains more animalistic passion and hunger than most sex scenes in film even today. The film forces the viewer to see the scene as a sex scene, and I can imagine many would find this film’s forcible nature to be a sort of perverse violation of the senses. I see it, however, as a very brave thing, and I feel this way for a lot of reasons. For starters, this is what sex is to some people. This is a sex experience that many folks can put themselves in. These aspects of humiliation, abuse, and sadomasochism are erotic to many people, and I frankly found this portrayal of human sexuality to be quite refreshing. In the ‘Horror’ story, we are given the closest thing to a normal human relationship in the film. We have a mad scientist who wants to share his success. There is nothing wrong with being proud of an accomplishment, and this man’s accomplishment is taken seriously by the world of the film. We have this man fall in love with a woman who wants to share his joy and his satisfaction. When the story turns tragic, the audience is left saddened because they have a genuine connection toward one another, unlike everyone else in the film, and the chemistry exists. The film is stripped of the only purity it had left, and that really sets the mood for the rest of the film’s intensity. With ‘Hero’ we are given eyewitness accounts of the little boy allowing other students to hurt him. Teachers and students speak of strange lies that he told in order to goad people into beating him up. There is a self-implied feeling of self-exploration and experimentation the boy was apparently enacting. This sense of confusing pervades the entire film as soon as it is introduced, and so in essence we pretty much get the entire gay experience here, which, obviously, not all gay people experience but some do. The ones that have an unhealthy upbringing and go through life feeling confused, diseased, and physically abused are the ones that need to have more stories told about them, because those are the stories that most people don’t want to think about and don’t want to confront. I think that Todd Haynes’ Poison is a step in the right direction in this regard.
The film also works in exploring the idea of fear, both of the body and also in all violence. When the film explores sexuality and violence, it does so with complete gusto. There are several parts in which all three stories are filled with intensity and chaos all at the same time, and Haynes’ way of balancing all of this is absolutely brilliant. This is a genuinely suspenseful film, and all three stories are equally interesting, ‘Hero’ in a voyeuristic sense, ‘Horror’ in a visceral sense, and ‘Homo’ in an erotic sense. You almost wish that the film would tell each story one at a time, BUT if it did that the film wouldn’t go by so quick. Each scene is so important to what Haynes builds with Poison that to put one scene before another seems almost completely irrational. I’ve seen this film four times now, and each time I am only reminded more and more of how strong and sound the structure of the film is. The film has an almost perversely comic level of cruelty in it, particularly in one blissfully disgusting scene, which I will not ruin, that takes place during a flashback in ‘Homo’ in which a boy is humiliated and abused in a rather horrible way that involves the exchanging of a particular bodily fluid. For those who haven’t seen it, don’t jump to conclusions to the fact that this is a gay-themed film. The fluid is not what you think it is. I think that the film’s homoerotic imagery, however blatant it is, only serves to make the film more harrowing. You rarely see a more miserable set of characters in any film.
Above all, Poison is a masterpiece. Along with In a Glass Cage, If…., My Own Private Idaho, Mysterious Skin, and the films of Derek Jarman, it’s one of the more challenging gay themed films that you’re likely to see. Even if the subject matter disturbs you, there is still so much to digest in terms of imagery and in the wonderful music score. Even if you put aside all that, however, you still have one of the most unusual storytelling structures you will likely see for this kind of film. You can spend the entire film just studying the structure and you will learn so much about scene and theme composition. Even putting aside THAT, however, the ambition of the film is enough to admire. I find that there is way too much going on here that can simply be written off. The things I’ve noticed upon re-watching this film have chilled me to the bone, and watching it only makes me want to watch it again. It’s one of those films that really hit the right notes with me. I will admit that the first time I watched it I couldn’t quite comprehend it. It is a dizzying film in that sense, and I don’t expect most viewers to digest a lot of the imagery on their first viewing. However, it’s a film that I think really says a lot about human progress in terms of sex, imagination, violence, and physical desire. It’s a powerful film with a lot of quiet emotion with an ending that left me feeling very polarized. Watching it once is simply not enough.