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.
This acute awareness of context and place runs through every aspect of the film, which like the best Sirk films exaggerates and satirizes its milieu without removing the characters from reality. Cathy and Frank are a TV sitcom American family at first, so cheerful and bright that they can hardly be real, and yet over the course of the film each character begins to open up, to express their emotions more openly, to articulate the worries and desires that have been bottled up inside them. Quaid and Moore both give phenomenal performances, and Moore especially is jaw-dropping. Haynes obviously loves her face, and her many expressive closeups allow her to act with subtlety and grace, telling stories with just the movement of her mouth, the corners of her lips spreading into a wide fake smile, as if by instinct, only to collapse into a more neutral expression. Increasingly, she comes to seem like a real woman somehow inhabiting the hollowed-out shell of a sitcom mom, her improbably bright dresses furling around her, her blonde curls bouncing, even as her emotions threaten to flood over her.
This disjunction between the artifice of the sets and the intensity of the emotions the characters are feeling extends throughout the film. Haynes’ sets are meticulous, brilliantly colored, capturing the feel of Sirk’s Technicolor fantasias and in some ways even going far beyond the look of Sirk’s own films. There’s something even more knowingly artificial in the way that Haynes uses light as a veil over a particular space, defining its look and mood independently of any actual light sources within the scene. There are several scenes in which Haynes layers a warm blue light over the entire frame. When Cathy confronts Frank after a party where he got drunk and became nasty, their darkened living room is bathed in blue light, and Haynes moves the camera from a long shot of the two of them, tracking with Cathy as she walks forward, until the shot is reframed with her alone. She stands there, slightly to the right in the frame, the thick blue light working to obscure her reaction to Frank, to soften the contortions her face is going through as she struggles to keep her emotions in check, to act the part of the dutiful wife she’s supposed to be playing.
Far From Heaven is an astonishing work of homage, one that attempts to understand and explore its subject from every angle, in every aspect. This is not only a remarkable surface-level tribute to Sirk (though, aesthetically and visually, it is that too) but a tribute to the director’s mastery of the form of melodrama as a vehicle for social commentary and satire. Haynes, like Sirk, is continually concerned with pushing beyond surface appearances, revealing taboo subjects in unexpected places. Sirk could not, of course, deal as directly with sexuality or race in his own work, instead hinting at his characters’ darker subtexts in whatever ways he could. Haynes, with the luxury of a less censorial film industry, lets these things bubble up, lets the Sirkian artifice crumble to see what might lie underneath: genuine, living, breathing people, with hang-ups and suppressed desires, struggling to maintain a glamorous, happy version of themselves that could only have existed, if anywhere, in a 1950s Hollywood movie.