Far From Heaven September 14, 2015
Far From Heaven only speaks in sweeping symphonies, cherry-red Technicolor, and postcard optimism. It is gargantuan in its emotion, pleasing in its artifice. To say it is an homage to Douglas Sirk and his 1950s, soap-operatic conglomerates would be an understatement; though released in 2002, it is so authentic in its nuclear family-meets-trouble melodrama one could swear it were released in 1957 if it starred Jane Wyman instead of the inimitable Julianne Moore.
The latter, putting on her most happily repressed face, headlines as Cathy Whitaker, an archetypal wholesome homemaker who seemingly has the perfect life. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is the successful owner of a TV company, her children shining examples of the “Aw, shucks!” cliché. The family, unquestionably, leads their wealthy social circle, housewives looking up to Cathy like she’s a real-life Donna Reed, husbands thoroughly jealous of Frank’s marital good luck.
But things aren’t as enviably flawless as they first appear. Though they’ve been happily married for years, Frank is becoming increasingly tortured by his hidden homosexuality — he’s been able to keep it locked inside for his entire life, but as the film opens, he’s wearing down. It doesn’t take long before he visits a gay bar, before Cathy stops by his office late one night to bring him dinner and discovers him kissing another man.
With her seamless personal life crumbling before her very eyes, Cathy is surprised to find herself progressively attracted to her gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a black man committed to such a crushing job because the harmful segregation of the decade hardly allows for him to use his business degree in the real world. While most of the predominantly white town prefers to pretend that he doesn’t exist, Cathy is infatuated by his charming eloquence — he presents her with a point of view completely foreign to her. As her marriage races to its last legs and the town begins viciously talking, Cathy is forced to consider whether pursuing such a controversial relationship is worth risking her seemingly invincible reputation.
Todd Haynes isn’t interested in making a new kind of 1950s melodrama; though he stirs in taboos aplenty (you can’t release a film in 2002 and expect the usual vintage subtleties to work efficiently), every aspect is astonishing in its well-versed mimicry. Purposefully, the sets look like sets; the music, massively melodic and dramatic, speaks for the characters when manners forbid them to divulge their true feelings; the color palette, specifically planned by Haynes during the conceptual process (green and black are used during scenes of anxiety, vibrant autumn colors spread about throughout moments of clarity), is breathtakingly identical to the Technicolor pigmentation of the filmmaking era. One could watch the film simply for its emotional content; but for cinephiles with a fetish for Douglas Sirk, it’s a goldmine of pitch-perfect homage.
Its complete lack of irony and subtlety makes the photographic lust pop, its storyline, its acting, ripple through the body — there’s a reason why Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life are such classics: the over-the-top, chintzy dramatizations are just too cinematic to resist on a sympathetic level. Haynes’s remarkable dedication to stock dialogue allows for the underlying emotional context to sizzle. As Cathy inserts pet names and breathy coos between each word for the sake of appearing like she’s the perfect wife, we can increasingly see that it’s all part of a façade that conceals her inners, which, during most of them film, are being torn apart. By never getting to express her dissatisfaction through dialogue, Moore’s performance is heightened, Haynes’s screenplay all the more deceptively complex.
It touches on the social issues of the 1950s (race most predominantly, homosexuality at a close second) with gusto films of the decade were not allowed to discuss, and yet Far From Heaven never feels like a modernization. It, instead, is an expansion of the artistic and cerebral ideas of the luscious subgenre. Moore is fantastic as a woman perhaps more real than Dorothy Malone or Lana Turner ever were; Haysbert and Quaid are excellent as the men she holds close to her heart but only lead her to nowhere. No matter where she turns, Cathy Whitaker will never be content. But her film long predicament is compulsively watchable, and as long as her life is lensed as if it were a part of an unusually decadent Photoplay session, that’s good enough for me. A