Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) works as a gardener for the Whitakers. Because he’s a character in Far From Heaven, set during a 1957 fall and winter in Hartford, Connecticut, Raymond spends a lot of time outside, raking leaves and trimming undergrowth for the white folks. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) first spots Raymond through her kitchen window: he’s poking around in the shrubbery. She’s initially startled, but when she learns that he’s just now taken over his late father’s gardening jobs, Cathy is immediately gracious and warm, patting his shoulder to express her condolences. At which point, she’s called inside to complete an interview with the local society pages reporter, and that seems to be that.
But Far From Heaven is a Todd Haynes movie: this means that nothing is what it seems to be. It reworks and pays homage to Douglas Sirk’s films, in particular, All That Heaven Allows, perhaps the exemplary 1950s “woman’s film.” Where Sirk’s version focused on the class anxieties triggered when well-to-do Jane Wyman fell in love with gardener Rock Hudson (and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul added race, age, and national identity tensions), Haynes’ film takes up an increasingly unresolvable series of anxieties, from class and race to sex, jumpstarted when Cathy’s husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) confesses that he likes men, that way. All of these anxieties come only slowly to the surface, for Haynes’ movie is as acutely Technicolored and hyper-stylized as any of Sirk’s gorgeous melodramas. It’s all about surface, or more precisely, the damage that surface does.
For Haynes, much of this surface is simultaneously supple and precise, “girly-swirly,” as he terms it. And the character who works hardest to hold it together, at least at first, is the very girly Cathy, lovely in her half-sleeve sweaters and swirly skirts, gauzy lavender scarves and perfectly curled hair. A dedicated housewife and mother to a couple of kids who show up here primarily as props, much as kids did in ’50s movies, Cathy is happy to spend her days in service to everyone around her. She doesn’t know otherwise. She plans parties, shops, and has daiquiris with her girlfriends. And she looks after the household, with the help of her maid Sybil (Viola Davis), ensuring that dinner’s ready on her husband’s arrival home each evening.
When Frank starts staying later at the office (he’s a sales executive for a television manufacturer called Magnatech) and pouring liquor in his coffee in order to get through the day, he knows he’s in trouble, but confides not a bit of it to Cathy. He’s afraid, she’s flawless, and together, they are “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,” the model couple for an emerging pop consumerism.
Soon, however, Frank finds himself in places he doesn’t want to go, namely, the underground bars where he meets men who offer to buy him drinks. He tries to explain it to his wife, horrified at his own lack of “control,” and hoping that confession will wash it away: as a teen, he suffered from this deviant desire, but he had hoped he had “gotten over it.” Cathy, equally horrified, makes a plan: he’ll go to a doctor. He’ll be cured. Of course he will.
Maintaining the illusion that all is well in her marriage, Cathy continues to juggle daily details, her kids’ after-school activities, her luncheons, and some niggling gossip over the society page article, which has reported that she is “kind to the Negroes.” Her best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) attempts to cover for her, noting that she was always wild in college, tending toward underdog causes and “steamy Jewish boys” because she is kind and naïve. But then, Cathy actually speaks to Raymond in public, at an art gallery opening to which he (a widower) has brought his young daughter Sarah (Jordan Puryear). Cathy and Raymond stand together before a Miró, willfully unaware of the stares they’re attracting. “I just love it,” she breathes. “The feeling it gives.”
Whether Cathy appreciates the “feeling it gives,” or is projecting her own feeling onto the object in front of her, the way she expresses her experience is excruciatingly keen. For this scene and the film more broadly are insistently concerned with reading and feeling, with your positioning between text and context, between meaning and desire. Cathy isn’t a bad reader, but she’s inexperienced and eager, full of feeling to give and project.
Subsumed by her own surface, Cathy is also resistant, alarmed to see herself in the eyes of others, perhaps for the first time. This is, of course, the way that any “outsider” is used to seeing, to reading the mirror provided by judgmental, prejudiced, panicky observers. Like the women who resisted so dramatically and so bravely in the weepies of the ’40s and ’50s, despite certain disaster. Even as Cathy realizes the danger of her liaison with a black man, she’s also angry enough — at her adulterous husband, her willfully cruel friends, her own limitations — to seek, despite her fears, a way out.
Raymond offers the ideal shoulder to cry on. He’s gentle, sensitive, and generous, quite unlike her nattering friends or distracted husband. Seeing that she’s upset, Raymond takes her on an afternoon drive out to a farm where he’s to pick up cuttings for his nursery: his pickup truck is old but solid, the light is golden, the leaves colorful, the air crisp.
And in the midst of this autumnal paradise, Cathy reverts briefly and blindly to form. The nice white lady wonders aloud about the difficulties of being “the only one” in a room, as she has perceived Raymond at the gallery, when all the white folks stared at him. She smiles up at him, feeling hurt for him. Raymond smiles back, and offers to take her to lunch at one of his favorite local spots. At the café, she’s surrounded by black patrons, some curious, some aloof, still others resentful. Cathy, of course, thinks it’s about her, and accuses Raymond of having “fun” at her expense, so she’ll feel badly. But she’s missed the point, and so, he gently prods her: “This is what it’s like, to be the only one.”
Here Moore’s incredible face runs through a range of emotions in seconds: irritation, self-righteousness, worry, and at last, thankfulness and understanding. It’s a small, understated scene, not nearly so spectacular as some of Cathy’s showdowns with Frank, and yet it resonates, for the sting of her realization and the intelligence of the performances.
Though Cathy takes her feelings seriously, and reorders her life to accommodate a new reality without her husband, she’s unable, at last, to escape. Though she takes brochures from the door-to-door NAACP representatives and even calls with an offer to help, her fleeting fantasy that she and Raymond might move elsewhere, where “no one would know us,” is patently impossible. “Oh Mrs. Whitaker,” he says, quietly. And in that sober phrase, the limits of relationship are plainly laid out, from a point of view other than hers.
As much as Cathy yearns for a man to save her, as much as Raymond might truly admire and even love Cathy, and as much as he might long for a world where people can “see beyond the color, the surface of things,” they both know better. They live in a world where “blacks and whites” agree on one thing: no mixing. Far From Heaven pays earnest tribute to movies that explored that world, and in doing so, displaces the pain of today’s racism by elegant exaggeration and intentional artifice. But if its specific “surface of things” is safely distanced by setting and style, the feeling it gives — however you read it — is all too immediate.