Far From Heaven
Todd Haynes, USA, 2002
Posted: November 23,
Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine) pays respect to the
post-World War II "more than meets the eye" subspecies of
melodrama called "women's pictures," made by directors such as Douglas Sirk and
Max Ophuls, in Far from Heaven, a straight-faced examination of
whitewashed suburban hypocrisy set in picturesque Hartford, Connecticut in
the late 1950s. In its non-ironic, meticulously detailed study of a
seemingly ideal WASP nuclear family cracking apart, Haynes crafts a near
flawless blend of superficial appearances and subversive actions, a world
of weakening restraint and outright reckless behavior and, critically, the
irreconcilability between Apollonian decorum and Bacchanalian desire.
Dennis Quaid plays Frank Whitaker, a successful sales executive for
television manufacturer Magnatech, which has built a popular ad campaign
around the image of he and wife Cathy (Julianne Moore -- who previously
worked with Haynes on 1995's Safe -- in a remarkable, carefully
nuanced performance) as Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,
symbols of burgeoning American consumerism. Cathy, a homemaker whose days
consist of looking after the couple's two children, gossiping with other
housewives and sharing mid-afternoon daiquiris, fits perfectly into this
cutting edge-meets-Norman Rockwell picture. But soon small changes are
introduced into the idyllic routine.
Frank begins logging increasingly late hours away from home, ostensibly to work on a new ad
portfolio, and Raymond Deagan
(Dennis Haysbert), a handsome black man come to take over his late
father's role as the family's gardener, wanders into the Whitakers'
oppressively beautiful, red and gold autumnal New England setting. Frank's growing neglect of Cathy's emotional and
physical needs serves as the catalyst that draws her to the warm,
sagacious nature of Raymond. It also impels her to surprise Frank at the
office one evening with a home cooked meal, but ill-prepares her for the
sight of her husband in the arms of another...man.
Far From Heaven turns on the tension between Cathy's feelings of
betrayal and her determination to save face in the neighborhood. Despite her
shock and outrage, she dutifully sticks by Frank's side as he sees a
psychiatrist to combat the "sickness" of homosexuality. Subsequently, she
takes refuge in the company of Raymond, an outsider to whom she can safely
confide her feelings. Unfortunately, Cathy is seen in public with her
gardener, and the neighborhood gossip-mongers fan their innocent
friendship into a fully raging scandal.
When Frank learns of Cathy's social indiscretions, he selfishly chides
her for jeopardizing all that he's worked for, and she feels compelled to
stop seeing Raymond, in spite of her growing affection for the man. Things seem
to have settled back into a normal pattern over the Christmas holidays,
but Frank, of course, finds no cure for his homoerotic urges and
eventually engages in behavior that will destroy his family.
Far From Heaven smartly reveals what happens when people attempt
to deny their emotions for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Frank
might be despicable for abandoning his wife and children, but at least
he's finally being true to himself. Cathy, however, resists following her
heart, nobly sticking by her husband and protecting her children to the
bitter end, and her tortured sacrifice elevates the film above mere
melodrama. Frank takes the leap; Cathy does not. He gets his man, while
she helplessly watches her true love disappear. The dichotomy between the
two characters by film's end, and overall dramatic shift from a solved to
unsolved state, potently resonates beyond the closing
From a technical standpoint, Far From Heaven is flawless.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman and legendary composer Elmer Bernstein
deserve special mention: Lachman's use of brilliantly saturated colors and
deep shadows bring the world of Hartford to life, while Bernstein's score
accentuates the emotional peaks and valleys the characters travel with
pitch-perfect insight and execution. In fact, if there's a single flaw in
the film, it's Raymond's character. He's simply too strong, noble and wise
to be believed. He's supposed to represent both an element of natural
beauty and a paragon of racial tolerance, but his shining virtuousness, in
contrast to other characters' more human foibles, proves distracting.
Haynes manages to honor melodrama directors of the past while
fashioning his own bold assessment of a claustrophobically conservative
period in American history that he clearly considers not too far removed
from modern times. When Cathy tearfully explains to Raymond why she can't
see him anymore, he regrets the fact that people, black and white, gay and
straight, can't "see beyond the color, the surface of things." Far From
Heaven ably manages to do just that, blinding us with the false beauty
of its world, and then exposing the awesome burden that comes with keeping
up such uncomfortably artificial appearances.
Not So Mellow Drama
Those interested in viewing the works that inspired Far
From Heaven should check out Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows
(1955), in which a widowed Jane Wyman shocks her conservative suburban
community when she falls in love with her younger gardener, played by Rock
Hudson. Imitation of Life (1959) is another stellar Sirk effort, in
which Lana Turner plays a woman who puts her career before her family
against a backdrop exploring themes of race and sex. Max Ophuls'
The Reckless Moment (1949) effectively explores what happens when the
worlds of staid suburbia and the criminal underworld collide.
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