Today’s cinema adventure: Far From Heaven, the 2002 drama by writer/director Todd Haynes, which revisits the high-gloss style of late-1950s Hollywood melodramas in order to tell a story of social prejudice and dirty secrets surrounding an ideal, picture-perfect family in mid-century suburbia. Acclaimed by critics and nominated for scores of awards, it represented Haynes’ breakthrough as a top-level filmmaker and brought him his greatest commercial success to date. Particularly notable for its visual style- including radiant cinematography and meticulously realized period details- and the performance of Julianne Moore in the central role of a housewife whose ideal life begins to crumble around her, it is also considered an important breakthrough in the acceptance of independently produced films in the mainstream industry and something of a milestone in the continuing struggle to include gay and lesbian subject matter in movies aimed at a wider audience.
Set in the suburbs of Connecticut in 1956, Far From Heaven tells the story of Cathy Whitaker, a model housewife and mother in a seemingly perfect upper middle-class home. Her marriage to Frank, a successful sales executive, is happy and fulfilling, and she is a prominent member of the town’s well-to-do women’s social circle. She enjoys a blissfully elegant existence in her fashionable home, tended by Sybil, a black maid whom she treats- more or less- as an equal; the only aspect of her life that is less-than-ideal is the fact that Frank’s long hours at the office increasingly keep him away from home well into the night, but she is understanding and supportive of his efforts to keep his family well-provided-for. One evening when he is again stuck at work, Cathy decides to surprise her husband by bringing him a dinner plate from home; when she arrives, however, it is she who receives the biggest surprise, for she discovers Frank locked in a passionate kiss with another man. Later, at home, her deeply mortified husband haltingly admits to her that he has had “problems” in the past but until recently has believed himself to be over them. He agrees to see a psychiatrist and undertake therapy to “cure” him of his homosexual impulses. Nevertheless, as time passes, his refusal to discuss his ongoing treatment and his increasing emotional absence from their relationship- as well as his noticeably heavy drinking- begin to take their toll on their marriage; meanwhile, she finds an unexpected connection with her new gardener, Raymond, an educated black widower struggling to raise a daughter on his own. As their friendship develops, however, Cathy’s society friends begin to take notice, and she finds herself being shunned for crossing the line between races- an unacceptable social taboo which results in the ostracism of Raymond within his own community, as well. Facing condemnation from her former friends, no longer sure of her marriage, and growing to recognize the previously unthinkable truth about the nature of her feelings for Raymond, Cathy finds herself isolated and increasingly disillusioned by the hollow facade of her so-called perfect life, but in order to preserve her family she must make the difficult choice between following her own heart or conforming to social expectations.
Haynes, known for his highly stylized approach to filmmaking, wrote Far From Heaven as both a tribute to and a reinvention of the lavish domestic melodramas of the late 1950s, popular films which often featured controversial social issues as complications in their stories of idyllic middle-American life. In keeping with this, his screenplay features the kind of artificial-sounding, slightly over-the-top dialogue found in these slick documents of mid-century morality; but he has updated the subject matter, throwing the spotlight onto the kind of issues that- though deeply pertinent in that age of prosperous conformism- were too hot to handle for film studios still bound by a decency code that prohibited depictions of anything outside the accepted social “norm.” Consequently, Haynes has made a sort of “what if?” scenario come to life with Far From Heaven; he has painstakingly crafted a film that recreates the look and feel of those he is emulating, but which directly addresses the pertinent issues which could only be hinted at during the era in which they were made. In other words, he has made the movie that many filmmakers of the time doubtless wished they could have made, but were simply unable. Mining most specifically from the work of Douglas Sirk, whose big-screen soap operas, particularly All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, provide the inspiration and the model for Far From Heaven, he peels off the layers of coded euphemism and sugar-coated insulation to reveal the ugly specter of prejudice at the heart of this pretty-picture existence. In the suburban diorama he presents, the real emotional landscape beneath the pristine and well-ordered surface is made visible; he gives us a world where deviation from the accepted mold is a source of deep shame and scandal, where a “real man” believes that having sexual feelings for his own gender must be a psychological disorder, and where a woman’s friendship with her black maid is seen as admirably progressive but socializing in public with a black man is an affront to decency.
Haynes’ direction is impeccable; he lovingly conjures the form and substance of his chosen genre with absolute accuracy, and yet infuses the whole with his own particular style, subtly edgy and highly contemporary. There is an eye towards the use of symbolism- Frank’s job is selling advertising and his company’s own marketing features a portrait of himself and his wife in the comfort of their ideal modern home, underscoring the theme of presenting an artificial image for public consumption, and there is a frequent presence of mirrors and other sources of reflection or visual duplication- but these elements are present mostly to support a more direct communication of his themes, revealed through his dialogue and his storytelling. The outward form of his film adheres to the cinematic language of the movies by which it was inspired- the familiar standards of visual composition, leisurely tracking shots, slow cross-fades or blackouts between scenes, tilted camera angles to indicate that the world is slipping out of balance- without the use of more modernistic techniques such as rapid cutting or varying film speeds; one of Haynes’ most prominent traits as a filmmaker is his gift as a stylistic mimic, and he uses it to great advantage here. His deep understanding of the milieu in which he is working permits him to utilize its techniques in the service of his personal vision- an expression of the painful longings buried within this bygone era, and a reminder that, sanitized nostalgia aside, the simpler times so fondly remembered in the popular imagination were rife with hypocrisy, ignorance, fear, and heartbreaking dysfunction. More importantly, by presenting so clearly the outdated mores of the past, Haynes shows us not only how far we’ve come, but also- somewhat discomfortingly- how far we have yet to go. In observing the attitudes toward race and sexuality variously represented by the characters in the film, we are forced to examine our own relationship with these questions; we are not so far removed from a time when gay bars were hidden establishments behind an unmarked door in an alley or when interracial couples were not free to appear in public together, and the mistrust and prejudice surrounding such matters are still a nagging blot in the heart of our cultural identity. Though our own world may be a little closer than the one shown here, it is still, for too many of us, “far from heaven.”
The conceit of making a neo-Sirk melodrama, in less ambitious hands, might have resulted in a pale shadow of the original luster undeniably present in those earlier films, but Haynes takes it very seriously, and he takes it all the way; Far From Heaven is built like a piece of retro-fitted classic architecture, incorporating modern advancements into a structure made from the original raw materials and designs. The film was shot using with contemporary camera equipment, but utilizing the same lens filters and incandescent lighting that would have been employed in the 1950s, allowing cinematographer Edward Lachman to provide a luminous authenticity that perfectly captures the look of the period. Haynes also worked extensively with his designers to develop a color palette that matched the flavor of the era, infusing the sets and props with a rainbow of pastels and deep hues that likewise encapsulates the sensibilities of the time; most noticeable, perhaps, are the costumes of Sandy Powell, whose stunning designs incorporate not only the colors and lines of ’50s fashion, but the fabrics and textures as well, giving Far From Heaven a sense of realism that is often missing from such period films, which all too often look like an affected caricature of their era rather than a genuine expression of contemporaneous tastes. To complete the illusion, Haynes went so far as to enlist the great film composer Elmer Bernstein, whose music graced many of the most well-remembered movies of the actual period, to write the score; his lush orchestral accompaniment lends an unmistakable air of authenticity to the proceedings, as well as voicing the passion, the yearning, and the menace inherent in the story. It was to be Bernstein’s final work- he passed away shortly after completing it- but it stands as one of his finest.
Just as he takes the outward form of his project seriously, Haynes is careful to maintain its inner integrity; here again, he differentiates Far From Heaven from the countless other movies derived from mid-century sensibility by choosing to treat it without the irony that so often pervades contemporary takes on the period. It is true that the film’s imagery often includes signage or other items which offer subtle commentary on the action or subtext, but this is irony in a different, more literary sense, an artistic device used extensively by directors dating back to the earliest days of cinema and thoroughly in keeping with the style of the actual works the filmmaker emulates. To avoid inserting contemporary attitudes and judgments into the piece- particularly considering the use of stylized, melodramatic language in the movie’s dialogue- requires a delicacy and skill in the way it is handled by its players, an almost theatrical need to affect a heightened artifice without being disingenuous; one of the greatest blessings of Far From Heaven is that it has a superb cast that is more than equal to that challenge. It almost goes without saying that the film’s star, the always-glorious Julianne Moore, gives a sublime performance as Cathy, offering up an utterly captivating journey from precious naïveté to worldly disillusionment; her embodiment of Donna Reed perfection is utterly sincere, and yet she gives us a glimmer of the more complex soul that emerges throughout the narrative, as she gradually pares away the layers of socially conditioned conformity to reveal the mature, fully aware woman she has become by the bittersweet final scene. A more surprising and revelatory performance, however, comes from Dennis Quaid, as husband Frank; always a solid and dependable presence, the actor here breaks from all expectations- while simultaneously using them to great effect- with his portrait of a gay man trapped into the respectably straight, cookie-cutter existence dictated by convention; his exaggeratedly gregarious joviality rings no more false than that of any of his colleagues or cohorts- their world, after all, is a place where a show of male emotion is a sign of weakness and crippling imperfection- but when he is alone, his torment and shame are palpable, seething from within and racking his entire being. His struggle is all the more painful to watch because his role in the story is that of the unfaithful husband, failing in his duty to home and family because of what his society deems a moral failing, and we as an audience are conditioned to disapprove of his behavior and his choices; Quaid plays it with absolute integrity, forcing us to confront our own preconceived notions by showing us the ugliness of his anger and resentment- but also making it clear that they arise from the conflict between his true nature and his protective mask. Because he resists the temptation to soften his portrayal by playing for our sympathy, the unfolding emotional wreckage rings completely true, eliciting audience empathy far more than any forced Hollywood sentimentality could manage to do; his scene with Moore following the revelation of his secret shame- a choked, mutually humiliating exchange of faltering half-sentences and defensive body language- is one of the most devastating depictions of a breaking relationship in recent screen memory, and the understanding each actor has for their character in these moments allows us to feel the pain of both throughout the rest of the movie.
Though Far From Heaven ultimately belongs to its two stars, the remainder of the cast is equally superb. Dennis Haysbert as Raymond brings a refreshingly genuine aura of class to his portrayal of a confident, kind, and sophisticated gentleman, determined to live as he deserves despite the social dictates that surround the color of his skin- though thanks to his later role as the television spokesman for Allstate, it’s sometimes hard to watch him without thinking of insurance. Patricia Clarkson, as Cathy’s best friend and confidante Eleanor, tackles the delicate and thankless task of providing a sympathetic foil for Moore while having, ultimately, to represent the well-meaning but narrow-minded hypocrisy that permeated the time; she acquits herself admirably, making her character understandable, if not quite sympathetic. Viola Davis, in an early role as Sybil, Cathy’s maid, has little to do beyond adding her quietly dignified presence to the proceedings, but she does so with grace and charisma, managing to make a strong and eminently likable impression with a minimum of spoken lines. Finally, mention should be made of James Rebhorn, as the psychiatrist from whom Frank seeks “conversion” therapy, who has a memorable turn in his single scene; also resisting the urge to play a stereotype he presents the good doctor as friendly, kind and professional, a sympathetic- if inscrutable- figure who offers at least the suggestion of a more progressive attitude towards alternative sexuality.
Far From Heaven was a critical darling upon its release, and garnered more than 100 nominations for film awards worldwide, including 4 Oscars. With its reverent use of classic filmmaking style and technique, it’s easy to see why critics and film scholars would find it so rewarding, and much of the praise and commentary it has generated has been centered on this aspect of the movie; but for those less interested in cinematic heritage than with entertainment value, does it provide a worthwhile time investment on its own merits? The answer is a resounding yes; Haynes use of the classic mise-en-scène is geared entirely towards making an intelligent, modern film with a compelling, thought-provoking story, and the work of its cast and crew is never anything less than top-notch. Whether or not you have knowledge or experience of the Sirk-ian ’50s tearjerkers from which it is derived, it is a beautiful film to look at, and even those who normally disdain weepy melodrama will find its approach to be restrained and dignified, devoid of the hokey manipulation that so often mars such stories. Perhaps its greatest importance lies, however, in the snapshot it gives of a time and place in our not-too-distant past, when a dominant culture was freely allowed to discriminate and disenfranchise those who cannot conform to its carefully-guarded status quo; it’s a reminder of the human cost of hate and ignorance, and a warning to those who take for granted the social advancements of the past half-century- as well as an indictment against the all-too-many in today’s world who still cling to the outdated views of the not-so-golden past. On a less profound level, it is also a gift for the legion of social “outsiders” who, like its director, grew up loving the movies to which it pays homage, and longed for one that spoke directly to the concerns pertinent in their own lives; Far From Heaven is that movie, and thanks to Todd Haynes, it is everything we could have hoped it would be.