A landmark work in the worlds of New Queer Cinema and independent film, Todd Haynes’ Poison is an allegorical triptych that’s both disturbing and beautiful. Inspired by the writings of French author Jean Genet, the film explores themes of societal rejection that’s motivated by characters’ perceived transgressions. There’s an outsider at the heart of the three interweaving stories, and Haynes uses wildly divergent techniques to obliquely comment on the AIDS crisis and the marginalization of gays.
The film is often deliberately off-putting, and it sometimes seems as if the three disparate stories fail to cohere into a single cogent work, but Poison absolutely establishes Haynes’ abilities as an adept stylist. Later films, like the impeccably designed Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven and the fragmented pop dream of I’m Not There, are presaged here — not in a specific way, but in the way that Haynes achieves committed and detailed stylistic palettes and effortlessly shifts between them.
The film’s three segments are “Hero,” in which an unseen boy is reported to have killed his father and then flown away; “Horror,” where a scientist isolates the sex drive but accidentally ingests it, causing him to become leprous; and “Homo,” a prison romance that’s doomed from the start, punctuated by flashbacks of a lushly rendered reform school.
“Hero” is mock tabloid journalism, shot in a lurid, sometimes distorted manner that recalls all manner of TV newsmagazines. “Horror” is a credible imitation of ’50s B-pictures, with stilted performances and canted angles to match. “Homo,” a kind of retelling of Genet’s novel The Miracle of the Rose, is at once the most naturalistic and dreamlike of the three segments.
As a debut feature, Poison is a remarkable film, blending high art and the grotesque boldly. It’s not as assured or coherent as some of Haynes’ later work, but it stands as a signal of things to come.