REVIEW: An Audacious Throwback; Todd Haynes' Triumphant "Far From Heaven"
by Howard Feinstein
(indieWIRE/09.10.02) -- With audacious aplomb, Todd Haynes revitalizes the female-centered melodramas of the 1950s with "Far From Heaven," a last-minute addition to the main competition at the Venice Film Festival. (The film won two top prizes at the event, with Julianne Moore picking up best actress and honors and cinematographer Ed Lachman taking home the award for "best individual artistic crontribution.") In this faux-Technicolor feat, set in Hartford from the fall of 1957 through the winter of 1958, he uses as a point of departure the films made at Universal by the late, great Douglas Sirk, particularly "All That Heaven Allows" (1956).
In that film, Jane Wyman played a New England widow who provokes the ire of her supposed gal pals and the rest of her WASPy townspeople by having an affair with her gardener (Rock Hudson), a Thoreau-esque hunk in flannel who, unlike Wyman, doesn't care about what others think. The highly-charged differential was age: Wyman, with two children in college, is nearly a generation older than Hudson. After several flip-flops, she ends up at the side of a bedridden Hudson in what many consider an ironic happy ending.
Haynes revises the plotline, foregrounding the added topics of race and sexual orientation. He addresses the touchy subjects with a style suitable to the period and milieu. He merely suggests sexual tension and acts, as if he were bound by the Production Code still in effect in the '50s. Throughout the film, he meticulously adheres to the color schemes, props, camera movements, and acting techniques of the genre.
At the very center of "Far From Heaven" is Cathy Whitaker, played brilliantly by a blonde- wigged Moore, re-teaming with Haynes for the first time since 1995's "Safe." Cathy is a suburban housewife with a successful husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid, a revelation here), two young children, a powder-blue- and-white station wagon, a split-level house, and an African-American maid. Her chief concerns are keeping up her home and appearances in their upper-middle-class community. This controlled, ever-smiling woman (one can't help but think of the Barbie dolls Haynes used in the cult film "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story") relies for companionship on a support group of gossipy female friends.
Haynes brilliantly twists Sirk's plot (while paying homage to other Sirk films, such as "Imitation of Life," "Written on the Wind," and "Magnificent Obsession"). Age is not the issue here: Cathy discovers that Frank is gay. Director of photography Ed Lachman shoots Frank in macho noirish oblique angles and with heavy shadows, as opposed to the more "feminine" aesthetic attached to Cathy.
The gardener Cathy falls for is black. Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) is a gentle, handsome man who rejects the hypocrisy of the times. He owns a plant shop and is the single father of a young daughter, who becomes the object of violence from white schoolmates. Haynes refuses to make plotlines pat: Even his fellow "coloreds" give Raymond a hard time for his (unrequited) dalliance with a white woman (just as Cathy's friends are ultimately oppressive).
Haynes's script is remarkably tight. Almost every negative encounter with the deceptive Frank leads Cathy closer and closer to Raymond. Even though the film is peppered with more parties (a New Year's dance in Miami, the Whitaker's annual bash) and social functions (an art show) than Sirk ever used, Cathy becomes more and more isolated from judgmental friends and neighbors, and especially from the tortured Frank.
Haynes refuses to give the men a break: Though both Frank and Raymond are victims of their times, they have options unavailable to women. Without giving away the ending, let's just say that he does not gloss over the subjugation of women.
Like Sirk, Haynes uses simple but poignant objects to conjure an affective response in the film's characters as well as in its viewers. When Cathy's blue neck scarf blows away, Raymond retrieves it; later, she finds it in her pocket and makes a crucial decision. Raymond gives her a bough of witch hazel, and its presence in a vase in her home also provokes Cathy to seize the moment.
Elmer Bernstein provides a brilliant score, which, with tinkly piano and heavy crescendos, purposefully and shamelessly exacerbates an emotional reaction from the audience -- as melodramas are meant to do. (It is a riff on Frank Skinner and Joseph Gershenson's music in "All That Heaven Allows.") In close collaboration with Haynes and Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg and costumer Sandy Powell (Moore's full, pleated skirts are fabulous) create a perfect Eisenhower-era world of pastel interiors and "moderne" facades.
In interviews and in conversation, Haynes has often paraphrased Fassbinder's comments on the complexity of women at the center of '50s Hollywood melodramas. With Moore's Cathy in "Far From Heaven," he ups the ante.