Far From Heaven
Kitschy, impassioned, tender, and delirious, the wildly overripe Hollywood soap operas made by director Douglas Sirk during the 1950s have long enjoyed a cult following among film buffs. You hardly have to be part of the cult, though, to respond to the rapturous moviemaking magic of Far From Heaven, the bold and brilliant new film by the maverick writer-director Todd Haynes (”Velvet Goldmine,” ”Safe”). From its lovely, too-pristine-to-be-real opening image, a slow, arcing crane shot of a train station viewed under autumn leaves, through its tumultuous tale of a Hartford, Conn., couple whose lives are ripped apart by desires they can scarcely acknowledge, the entire movie is a picture-perfect, nearly fetishistic re-creation of the four-hankie, Technicolor melodramatic style that Sirk made famous in such popular weepers as ”All That Heaven Allows,” ”Imitation of Life,” and ”Written on the Wind.”
Even those who’ve never experienced a frame of Sirk will recognize that they’re in the synthetic hothouse world of ’50s studio-system moviemaking. At first, as Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), an idealized wife and mother, moons over carpet samples with her chatty best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), the brazen artificiality of it all looks like some sort of postmodern joke. Yet it takes almost no time for ”Far From Heaven” to immerse us in its spell, in part because the details are really no more odd, remote, or campy than they would be in any actual old movie.
Haynes gets it all down: the pretty yet matronly suburban women who dress like bouffant-haired prom queens; the stately, exposed-brick colonial homes dotted with just enough Atomic Age touches to have come out of a Life magazine photo spread on postwar design; the ”women’s-picture” dialogue that’s so sincere yet brimming with polite decorum that it sounds as if it had been written by Edith Wharton channeling Emily Post; the extravagantly moody, setting-sun photography that can suddenly turn a Norman Rockwell tableau into a martini-hour film noir, with each room lit by a different burst of hot color, the characters silhouetted by the darkness of their hidden selves.
The year is 1957, and it’s clear that trouble is brewing in the ”perfect” marriage of Cathy, a happy homemaker as oblivious as she is chipper, and Frank (Dennis Quaid), her sales-executive husband, who starts each day at the Magnatech office by pouring a shot of booze into his coffee. Soon enough, we learn what Frank is trying to numb: his homosexuality, which has no place in either ’50s culture or a ’50s movie. The fact that Haynes puts it in his ’50s movie doesn’t alter the poignant reality of Frank’s torment, which is only heightened since he lacks any vocabulary to understand, let alone describe, his feelings. Quaid, in a performance that’s the definition of fearless, shows us layers of shame, rage, and desperate lust that will speak to anyone who ever tried to bury a painful secret until it didn’t exist.
Cathy, seeking refuge from her troubled spouse, soon develops a secret of her own, drawn by the soft-spoken magnetism of her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) — a friendship tinged with an erotic danger that everyone in town, notably its racist gossips, can see but her. Moore acts with a shimmering naïveté that only grows more luminous as her illusions fall away, one by one, like dying flower petals. Poised against beautiful fake-woods settings that the movie treats as a backlot Eden, or, in one moment of stunning lyricism, in front of a Miró painting, Moore and Haysbert turn their deceptively innocent dialogue into pure poetry, a conduit for feelings too forbidden to be expressed.
It’s one thing to duplicate the look of an earlier age, as the Coen brothers did in ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” or Gus Van Sant in his shot-by-shot remake of ”Psycho.” Haynes gets at something more elusive: the mood, and mystery, of the past. Nudging his story into areas of sexuality and race that would have been taboo at the time, he at once preserves and pokes through the repressed spirit of the ’50s, fashioning the era into an eerie echo of our own. This tale of people whose inner lives tear away at their surface ”normalcy” speaks to the current glitzy era of surface obsession, which is less removed from the ’50s than we’d like to think.
”Far From Heaven” is a dazzling conceptual feat, but more than that, it’s a work of enthralling drama — a deconstruction of Hollywood soap opera that is also a full-fledged, utterly unironic masterpiece of the form. It may have taken a mad film buff to dream this movie up, let alone to bring it off, but only a true artist could have suffused it with such searching purity of emotion. The dizzying twin sensations the film evokes — the feeling that you’ve never seen anything like it, and that we’ve all seen something very much like it — don’t fight each other. They merge, making the experience exist not in two dimensions but four. Who could have guessed that our cornball Hollywood past, newly reassembled with nearly all of its restrictions intact, would turn out to be a more expressive landscape than virtually anything in the let-it-all-hang-out, we-will-rock-you pop culture of today? Haynes hasn’t just embraced old Hollywood. He has brought its soul back to life, showing us a path to what Hollywood could still be.