Full Bloom: Lilacs in Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession"

Love and death, intertwined in the scent and sight of lilacs.
Patrick Holzapfel

Ivana Milos Magnificent Obsession

Ivana Miloš, Magnificently Obsessed (2022), monotype, nature print and gouache on paper, 33 x 24 cm.


"People ask me why there are so many flowers in my films. Because these homes are tombs, mausoleums filled with the corpses of plants. The flowers have been sheared and are dead, and they fill the homes with a funeral air."

—Douglas Sirk

Nobody has ever used flowers in films quite like Douglas Sirk. The German-born director, with his eloquent style between melodramatic splendor and ironic camp, frames his bouquets and garden flowers so prominently, I can’t help myself wondering whether he is more interested in his romantic characters or the florets they like to surround themselves with. If I had to choose a smell related to his work (a game I love to play with any director), I’d go for the fragrance of lilacs. It’s a scent appearing sweet and enchanting, sumptuous and fresh, as well as it is pungent and over the top; the smell covering the mortified desires of old ladies living in an abundance of worthless wealth, which they try to cover with this “false blue,” as poet Amy Lowell described the flower. I admit to not liking the smell of lilacs at all. In my perception, all this sweetness covers a decay I desperately try to suppress. It’s like being in a closed room with someone who wears too much perfume. Penetrating, suffocating. But the lilac is also related to the awakening of love—t’s complicated.

In Sirk’s melodramas both of these associations are at work, the sweetness of love and the inevitable withering of beauty and life. Lilacs are most prominently featured in Magnificent Obsession (1954), a film making anyone drunk within ten minutes if the game was to drink whenever a flower appears on screen. It’s completely crazy: The film is a jungle of dead flowers. Gladiolas, roses, freesias, strange twiners (their silhouettes appearing like harbingers of supernatural powers very much as in German expressionist films), rooms and cars filled with lilacs, and one of many flower pots saving the life of Helen, played by Jane Wyman, when it falls from the balcony at the right moment. Helen, the suicidal widow gone blind is the protagonist in this romance that, make no mistake, is as over the top as the flowers blooming in it.

Retelling the plot with a serious face is almost impossible. For our sake it’s enough to know that bon vivant Bob (Rock Hudson in his breakthrough role) and Helen are terribly in love although there is neither reason nor any other explanation for it. It’s one of those stories someone will explain to you with the soft voice of everlasting, voluntarily naïve truth: “It’s about love.” It’s in the very same voice Helen shares her enchantment with the fragrance of lilacs in the evening air in one of those larger-than-life moonlit rear-projection car drive scenes. Her love for lilacs is Bob’s cue. Next thing you know, he stops at a flower seller somewhere in the Swiss Alps and buys two humongous bouquets, which cover the interior of their cabriolet. Later in the evening, the two lovers kiss while holding a lilac bouquet, their silhouettes accentuated by lilac dots shimmering in the dark. That’s not enough for Bob. His is the romanticism of a rich man. He brings and sends further lilacs to Helen’s room and when he arrives one morning, not knowing that his lover has disappeared. He remarks to Helen’s stepdaughter who is in the room, “I hope you are not allergic to lilacs.” Well, you better not be yourself, otherwise it’s impossible to watch this film.

The Syringa vulgaris, part of the Olive family Oleaceae, originates on the Balkan Peninsula. The Turks were the first to cultivate the species, later it arrived in Vienna and Paris. It grows as a deciduous shrub or a small tree with purple or white flowers. The blooms appear in panicles or branching clusters. Lilacs bloom in spring. I mostly encounter them planted in rows (filling whole streets with their odor, which makes me walk faster). Several types exist carrying names like Yankee Doodle, Belle de Nancy, or Madame Lemoine. Since they are so famous for their smell it makes a lot of sense Sirk uses them in Magnificent Obsession whose protagonist is blind. They also perfectly fit the upper class bourgeoisie in the film as it is a plant for showing off while at the same time, as the filmmaker said himself, it gives a sense of funeral air.

Marking the entry point in what is today most often associated with the director—exquisite melodramas in bright colors with Rock Hudson, love and pain—in this remake of John. M. Stahl’s 1935 adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas’ quite horrible novel of the same name, Sirk made sure to have enough flowers on the set. I can only guess, but his set decorators Russell A. Gausman and Ruby R. Levitt must have had a hell of a job positioning and indeed exchanging all these flowers from shot to shot as lilacs especially wither quite fast when they are cut and not put into water immediately. I also made the mistake of checking on the continuity of these flowers and their pots. Of course, there is no continuity. Sirk is interested in the effect of putting these flowers in the frame; he doesn’t care where they appear in the next shot. Whoever searches for realism here, even if it’s for the sake of those plants, took the wrong turn. Those flowers were never meant to appear real. “It’s too wonderful, Nancy,” says Helen to her stepdaughter. It’s true, but that’s the point of it all.

Now, it would be easy to say that flowers are nothing more than a melodramatic cliché. Just look at the book covers of cheap melodramatic novels: Many are as covered in lilacs as is Magnificent Obsession. It’s certainly true that Sirk never shies away from such clichés; he seems to take them quite seriously. At the same time, it all seems to be ironic. Since melodramas have changed quite a bit since their heyday in classical Hollywood it’s maybe me who has to learn to see them again. The flowers Sirk puts in his films help me in this regard.

When I was younger I didn’t get Sirk’s films at all. The way he shows love is very far from anything I have ever experienced or observed. Strangely, it was only when I learned about death and experienced what it means to lose someone forever that I began to understand his films better. It’s precisely because everything vanishes and decays that our attempts in preserving some kind of beauty appear so desperate, over the top, and ultimately touching. It’s not by accident one of Sirk’s best films is called A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Even in T. S. Eliot’s most famous work, The Waste Land, the lilacs are breeding out of the dead land in April. “It’s about love,” as someone will tell you with a soft voice. “It’s about death,” someone else will whisper when love is fading, reemerging, changing; when all that seemed eternal is forgotten. In Magnificent Obsession everything begins with death (in the case of Helen’s husband) and a loss of care about life (in the case of Bob’s way of life). It’s from complete darkness those lilacs emerge. They are irrational, dull, exaggerated, but they are also full of hope.

All these flowers we kill in order to make a room look nicer or to give them to someone we love are mere reminders of the volatility of life. It’s easy to look at those lilacs and laugh about them just as we sometimes do when observing two people in love. There is something ridiculous about it, but it’s all a matter of perspective. One day we will be or we have been the one in love (more likely the latter in the case of Sirk’s heroes), and why not take those flowers seriously? Maybe that’s the whole thing about me not liking the sweet smell of lilacs and not understanding Sirk’s films. I have to learn to fall in love again.

Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.

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