Todd Haynes | 1hr 47min
It is a bold move to revise and deconstruct an out-of-fashion film genre within a modern context, but bolder still to dig deeper into its antiquated conventions as Todd Haynes does here in Far From Heaven. There wasn’t exactly a market for tender-hearted melodramas in 2002, and yet within this narrative of 1950s suburban house parties, nuclear families, and neighbourhood gossip he steadfastly proceeds with a film that speaks sensitively to the deep-rooted prejudices of middle-class America. Perhaps this bucking of mainstream trends puts Haynes even more in line with his greatest cinematic influence than ever as well, as in the era of post-war America when Douglas Sirk’s films were being derisively written off as “women’s weepies”, the classic Hollywood director similarly used artistic empathy as a weapon to defiantly challenge social norms.
As sentimental as Far From Heaven may be and as naïve as his characters are, any accusations of phoniness are unfounded. The heightening of emotions present is not intended to force compassion for Hayne’s characters, but rather to tune us into those repressed parts of their identities they struggle to face, and the subtleties of ordinary life that go entirely unnoticed. Praise must go to Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert who capture that tricky balance between internal worlds and external expressions as closeted family man, Frank, and African-American gardener, Raymond, both of whom rub up against the strict social order. But it is especially in the ways that Julianne Moore relates to them as Cathy Whitaker, a housewife torn between her social duty and genuine love, that we can fully grasp the strain of 1950s suburbia. After catching Frank, her husband, having an affair with another man and growing closer with Raymond, the pressures of her narrow-minded neighbourhood begin to close in, and cracks in her idealistic life begin to manifest.
Thematically, Far From Heaven falls right alongside Sirk’s Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows in its delicate studies of class and race, although perhaps the single most transgressive aspect that gives it a modern grounding is its candour in approaching homosexuality – certainly a taboo topic in the days of Hollywood’s Production Code. The only barrier to Hayne’s prodding of the issue is the repression of his characters, who awkwardly stumble around discussions and confrontations with an uncomfortable clumsiness. Beyond the walls of the home, the eyes of judgemental neighbours are ubiquitous in low-angle cutaways, and when social convention is thrown out in sudden developments, Sirk tilts his camera in canted angles, destabilising Cathy’s entire world.
Most of all though, it is in Hayne’s long dissolves, saturated colours, and autumnal suburban landscapes where Sirk’s stylistic influence elegantly seeps through, tying its worldly innocence to the emotional honesty and wholesomeness of those characters quietly confronting rigid communal structures. Rich hues burst from manicured green lawns and warmly lit domestic settings with vivid passion, these palettes shifting from scene to scene like expressionistic outpourings of these characters’ emotional states. When Frank grows frustrated with his inability to perform sexually for his wife, chilly blue day-for-night lighting takes over their living room, pierced only by Cathy’s bright red dress standing within it as icon of vibrant warmth. As he explores shady basement bars, a neon green glow drenches him in an unnatural shade of green, pulling him into a new, covert world that, while possessing an entirely distinct tone, remains just as boldly luminous as the rest of his life.
It is fitting that this throwback to the 1950s marks the final score for classical Hollywood film composer Elmer Bernstein before his passing, his symphonic orchestra of woodwinds, strings, and piano floating through the film like a wistful, nostalgic dream. This dream though is one which is almost entirely artificial, constructed out of America’s naive mid-twentieth century ideals, and which motivates Haynes to go about puncturing it with sobering recognitions of its limitations. Through windows, Haynes often shoots Cathy within her home like a trapped creature, only beginning to consider her own role in perpetuating the same oppressive barriers she now nervously struggles against, and although she does not succeed in destroying them, she still ends her arc with far more self-awareness and compassion than ever before. Within every frame of Far From Heaven there seeps a beauty that makes an honest effort to understand each of its characters on that same level, drenched in the colourful expressions of a director not so much challenging well-worn conventions as he is playing right into their arms with loving affection.
Far From Heaven is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and to buy in the Microsoft Store.