Archive for July 29th, 2014

by Ed Howard

Far From Heaven is Todd Haynes’ loving, flawlessly constructed tribute to the cinema of one of his favorite directors, Douglas Sirk, and especially to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. That film, about a society widow who invites gossip and disgrace by developing a friendship and eventually a romance with her younger gardener, provides the germ of the idea for Haynes’ own take on Sirkian melodrama. Sirk also provides Haynes with a window through which he can look back on the 1950s, not as it truly was, but as it might have been, refracted through the ornate stained glass of Sirk’s melodramas. Everything bathed in lurid pastel lights and colors, everything a facade as patently artificial as a Happy Daysset. This artificiality is part of the point. This vision of the 50s, a TV fantasia with relentlessly cheerful wives, clean-scrubbed kids, and hard-working husbands, is an artifice so obvious that it’s just begging to be peeled back. What Haynes finds when he digs through a few layers is barely concealed racism, sexual ignorance, and families held together by tradition and appearance rather than any real feeling or communication.

This turns out to be especially true for Cathy (Julianne Moore), the happy wife of successful advertising executive Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid). The couple are models for their friends and indeed their entire suburban Connecticut town, throwing well-loved parties, raising their two children, and generally projecting an aura of contentment and success to all who see them. This happy facade falls apart when Cathy discovers her husband in the arms of a man, a sign that he is diseased in some way: he’s “one of those.” But this is only the beginning of Cathy’s troubles, as she soon finds that her developing friendship with her black gardener — a friendship that, like the one in Sirk’s film, is tinged with unarticulated desire — causes even more problems, stirring up hateful gossip around the town. Haynes is here borrowing from both Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose Fear Eats the Soul already paid homage to All That Heaven Allows by widening the age gap between the protagonists and making their primary difference racial rather than class-based. And just as Fassbinder roots this relationship in the political and social climate of its period, 1970s Germany with its concerns about Arab immigration and integration, Haynes makes Far From Heaven squarely about the civil rights movement. There are numerous references to the NAACP and to the crisis in Little Rock regarding the resistance to school integration. It is in this context, far removed from the nation’s most overt expressions of racism but nevertheless far from integrated as well, that Haynes’ melodrama plays out. (more…)

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