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.