Far From Heaven (2002)

Lucas Hilderbrand

Just beneath this conservative façade lies a complicated and progressive commentary on the present that Todd Haynes leaves to the viewer to interpret.

Far from Heaven

Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal Focus
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-11-08

Writer/director Todd Haynes' latest film, Far From Heaven, literally "returns to form," but not necessarily his own. Directly inspired by Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955), the film appropriates the narrative of bourgeois repression and the look of suburban modernism familiar to fans of 1950s melodramas. However, with this film Haynes seems to be doing more than paying tribute to a favorite director and genre from the past. He is writing a history of the present.

Far From Heaven focuses on Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, Haynes' answer to Jane Wyman), a model housewife in 1950s Hartford, Connecticut. Her husband Frank (an impressive Dennis Quaid) is an executive at a television company, and her best friend Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson) helps her plan catered parties for local society types. Cathy befriends her black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), meeting him first in her garden and then again at an art gallery, where they share a moment reveling in a Miro painting; much is made in the community paper that she is "kind to Negroes."

Frank realizes his attraction to men, and, after confessing his feelings to his wife, begins therapy. His rehabilitation ultimately proves futile, and he leaves Cathy for a man. Devastated, Cathy looks for sympathy among her friends but only finds true understanding with Raymond; soon she falls in love, but mixed relationships simply are not permissible, even in the "progressive" North.

Using an aesthetic excess somewhere between Francois Ozon's kitschy 8 Women and Wong Kar-Wai's nostalgic In the Mood for Love, Far From Heaven perhaps necessitates a cinephilic viewer. Early reports from Variety and Indiewire suggest that Far From Heaven has been widely admired at festivals, but will be a tough sell for mainstream viewers. Like the Sirk films that have inspired it, Far From Heaven uses exaggerated imagery to express the characters' emotional states (with no small contribution from director of photography Ed Lachman).

The bright colors often clash; the characters are routinely shot in profile instead of standard close-ups, and through windows or doorways to make visible their sense of confinement; and autumn leaves suggest the decay of Cathy and Frank's marriage. Brilliantly, just as Frank breaks from 1950s decorum to utter the word "fuck," Cathy's perfect coif is suddenly tussled by a gust of wind. Whereas Sirk used such strategies to intensify the drama and get around censorship codes, Haynes uses them in a time of comparable freedom of using sex, profanity, and violence.

Sirk's influence on Haynes is clearly marked in the precise period décor and the formulaic plotting, but New German Cinema director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a fan of Sirk himself, also informs this film. Haynes includes a direct allusion to Fassbinder's take on All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), in the racism that blocks romantic fulfillment. Fassbinder's more pertinent influence, however, appears to be a pessimistic sensibility. Notice Haynes' turn away from the promise of the title All That Heaven Allows to the morose Far From Heaven.

The tears here are not bitter, but heartbroken. At separate moments, Cathy and Frank sob uncontrollably, Cathy when she realizes that she can never have what she wants, and Frank when he realizes that he can no longer resist his attraction to men. Yet, even after Frank has left his wife and family, he does not appear to have found joy. He may be sexually liberated, but in some ways, nothing has changed for him.

In a phone call to Cathy to arrange a meeting to sign divorce papers, he is as apprehensive and sorrowful as before, even though it is revealed that he is living with his new male lover. This call, the final conversation between Cathy and Frank, is both the film's emotional climax and the moment that most clearly bares Haynes' authorial mark. Corresponding to his strategy in Safe, he amplifies the mundane to reveal the characters' empty relationships. "You never remembered my carpool days," Cathy observes, "and they've always been the same." Cathy's heart-rending accusation against Frank is seemingly the most banal remark she could make, and yet it epitomizes their marriage.

But why use a dated melodramatic style if Haynes aspires to something other than an homage? As Amy Taubin has observed in Film Comment, Haynes uses this seemingly dated 1950s melodrama model to reflect the repressiveness of today's conservative political climate. (Frank's discovery of gay bar recalls the '50s sci-fi anxiety that Haynes also employed in 1991's Poison.) Since the 1940s, the classification of "melodrama" has generally been associated with women's "weepies," although genre studies have shown its previous associations with post-Revolution French musical theater and 1910s action serial films.

Despite its varied formulations, the genre has consistently highlighted the use of disreputably (through associations with low classes and women) excessive if edifying portrayals of decent people struggling in an overwhelming modern world to attain their desires. Whereas melodramas formerly focused on contemporary problems facing their audiences through the figure of the heroine, the genre has increasingly become associated with period films, especially in Haynes' work.

Far From Heaven continues his historiographic project (or at least, his fascination with the past), in that period-specific, alienated women embody allegories of contemporary ills. He used Karen Carpenter's story of wasting from anorexia in Superstar (1987) and Carol White's environmental illness in the mid-'80s in Safe (1995) as metaphors for AIDS. Beyond AIDS symbolism, Haynes has also created films that evoke his personal desire to recapture lost moments in queer history that preceded his own experience-for example, the early-1970s London glam scene in Velvet Goldmine (1998). For Haynes, history presents not only a reflection of contemporary social problems but also dashed possibilities.

By working within the confines of the Sirkian melodrama and reducing characters to types in Far From Heaven, Haynes risks making a film with limited appeal (though it's worth noting that none of his films has been a major commercial success). But, just beneath this conservative façade lies a complicated and progressive commentary on the present that Haynes leaves to the viewer to interpret.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.