Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 21, 2002
Far From Heaven\r\nStarring Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, and Dennis Quaid. Written and directed by Todd Haynes. Rated PG-13. \r\n
Brief Encounter

Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is an intoxicating retro romance.


Todd Haynes is one magnificent bastard. That’s what I kept saying to myself while watching his latest and best film, Far From Heaven. Haynes came of age with the early ’90s New Queer cinema movement, and his wide-ranging films, from the impressively claustrophobic Safe to the visually striking but uninvolving Velvet Goldmine, have shown evidence of enormous talent. Even so, none of them will prepare you for this overwhelming romantic tragedy that’s a classic in every sense of the word.

To understand it properly, it helps to know about Douglas Sirk’s films, to which this movie pays homage. Sirk flourished in the 1950s making melodramas (“women’s pictures,” as they were known). These popular, soapy Hollywood films about domestic travails in American suburbia, dismissed by contemporary critics, have since won a wide following among scholars and filmmakers. I must confess I find them badly written and badly acted, but I have to admire Sirk’s subtle critiques of postwar society and his operatic mise-en-scene, with colored lights, mirrors, screens, and other devices pushing his good taste to surrealistic extremes.

Haynes re-creates this style with fanatical precision. Most period films are only period in their costumes and décor. Haynes uses 1950s cinematic techniques — dissolves, canted angles, establishing shots, even obvious back-projection in shots of characters driving cars. The film boasts an impossibly saturated color palette (courtesy of superhuman cinematographer Ed Lachman), filled with golds and oranges and reds too rich to exist in nature, and its high-contrast use of light and shade is nothing short of genius. Haynes’ evocation of the decade’s movies is an almighty jolt to the senses.

His story is a different matter, although it borrows some key plot points from Sirk’s 1955 film All That Heaven Allows. It’s about Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), the wife of a successful sales executive named Frank (Dennis Quaid), the mother of two, and the envy of her well-heeled social set in 1957 Hartford. Then one night, she brings Frank dinner as he works late at his office and finds him there kissing another man. Too ashamed to tell her society friends, she confides in her new gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), after he accidentally sees her completely lose it outside her house one day. As her marriage deteriorates, she falls in love with the gentle, solid, well-educated Raymond. Just being seen in public with a black man makes her a target of vicious gossip and worse. It’s cruelly ironic that Frank, as a closeted homosexual, actually has more freedom than Cathy and Raymond do.

In raising sexual and racial issues that even the most audacious old Hollywood melodramas only hinted at, it would’ve been easy to cater to our modern sensibilities and mock the era’s prejudices, not to mention its manners — Cathy admonishes her son for saying, “Aw, geez.” Haynes steadfastly refuses to do that, although the period’s mores are so alien to us that you might laugh anyway. Several incidents that seem like parody, like the white people clearing out of a hotel swimming pool after a little black boy wades in, are rooted in fact. In a chilling subplot, Frank seeks a psychiatric cure for his homosexuality, and no one in the film disputes that it’s a mental illness. The movie is cagily discreet about sex, violence, and language; when Frank snaps and uses the f-word, it’s like a bomb going off.

The cast, down to the bit players, nails the pre-Method, studio-bred acting style of the ’50s. The exception is Quaid, whose naturalistic work seems out of place at first, but the juxtaposition is very deliberate. He’s supposed to stick out, as James Dean or Montgomery Clift would have if they’d ever been cast in Sirk’s films. Quaid’s machismo is appropriate for the part of a man who wants desperately not to be gay, and his tormented performance is the greatest of his career.

The same could be said for the amazing Julianne Moore. As scary as this is, she’s getting better at this acting thing. Her Cathy could have easily stepped out of a Sirk film — check the rising and falling inflection of her line readings and the dainty way she moves her hands. She goes far beyond channeling the period style. She develops the character in novelistic detail, and she shares an excellent slow-burning romantic chemistry with Haysbert (who’s strong in the least showy of the three major roles). The way she renders Cathy’s awakening consciousness of a world beyond her own, and her fear as she discovers unsuspected feelings and reserves of courage, makes this her most powerfully tragic role.

The music here is by Elmer Bernstein, who was actually composing Hollywood film scores in the 1950s and understands that movies of the time handled music far differently from contemporary ones. Far From Heaven ends with a wordless coda at a train station, and Bernstein’s grand, sweeping, hugely cathartic theme fills in the emotions that the characters can’t articulate. This heart-stopping finale is the perfect end to an awe-inspiring, breathtakingly beautiful, and deeply moving film that takes the best of classic Hollywood and makes it new again.

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