Far From Heaven 11/27/2002
Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven masterfully recounts the unravelling of a 1950s society woman.
Thursday, November 28, 2002
Photo: Opposites Attract: Julianne Moore plays a Stepford wife who shocks the neighbors when she seeks out the company of Dennis Haysbert in Far From Heaven.
Far From Heaven begins just like Douglas Sirk''s 1952 Hollywood melodrama All That Heaven Allows: The camera cranes through a grove of treetops, through their fiery display of autumnal leaves falling to the ground, and onward toward the quiet town square of an old New England burb, until it alights on the story''s heroine. For Sirk it was Jane Wyman, playing a widow who falls for the young, free-thinking gardener (Rock Hudson) who prunes her bushes. For Todd Haynes, it''s Julianne Moore, who previously starred for Haynes in his 1995 movie Safe.
Butfor all that, Far From Heaven should not be misconstrued as a remake of All That Heaven Allows, even though Haynes sets the story in Fifties Connecticut. Hardly a slavish imitation along the lines of Gus Van Sant''s remake of Hitchcock''s Psycho, Haynes (who also scripted Far From Heaven) imbues his story with all sorts of ideas and conflicts that would have been impossible to talk about in 1950s Hollywood. Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a happily married Connecticut housewife, whose husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a successful executive. The pair have two young children, a boy and a girl, and a picture-perfect suburban life. In fact, Frank designed a high-profile ad campaign for his corporation that features the happy likenesses of Frank and Cathy posing as Mr. & Mrs. Magnatech. The couple''s showplace home can be frequently seen in the local society pages, and their living room hosts any number of upscale soirees.
But the moment Cathy happily purrs to a guest that she never wanted anything else, she spies Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) in her yard. Raymond is a handsome, young widower, who has become her new gardener. She scandalizes her companions when she engages this black worker in conversation, and then continues to seek out his company on several other occasions. Although Cathy is in the thick of the social swirl, she nevertheless conveys a hint of loneliness, which is exacerbated by her husband''s frequent late nights at the office. We all know what those late nights are code for in Hollywood movies, but when Cathy finally catches the provocatively named Frank in the arms of another, his paramour turns out to be a man and not a woman. Frank is unhappily gay in a world that considers homosexuality a sickness.
Haynes takes the subjects of race and sexuality from beneath the surfaces, where they were furtively gurgling in the Fifties movies, and puts them front and center in Far From Heaven. The result causes a stunning reassessment of everything we think we know about movies, past and present. At the same time Haynes brings the emotional underbelly to the surface, he also tricks up the visual surface with elaborate color schemes that provide unspoken clues regarding the characters'' frames of mind. Sirk also used this color-coded technique, but Far From Heaven costume designer Sandy Powell takes this color detail to a delirious new height. Other commendable assists are provided by cinematographer Ed Lachman and veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, whose lush orchestral score is informed by the 50 years he has spent in the business of creating film soundtracks.
The film''s performances are thrilling. Moore is transcendent in her cinched waists and "golly-gee" utterances, making us believe in every ounce of this character and never once seeming like a fabrication. Both Dennises-Quaid and Haysbert-are spectacular, all jutted chins and quivering guts. Todd Haynes, whose first film used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter''s anorexia, is in the business of making us see beyond surface values. He hits a gusher with Far From Heaven.