Far from Heaven (2002)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet

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The best reason to see Todd Haynes’ new film Far from Heaven is to watch Julianne Moore give one of her finest performances. If the Oscars had any integrity left (Gladiator? A Beautiful Mind?), I’d say she deserves one.

Moore plays the 1950′s idea of a perfect homemaker, a woman devoted to her picture-perfect family, her picture-perfect yard, and her picture-perfect home. The problem is, the picture is just a facade. And according to the journalist who comes to interview her about her immaculate life, “Candid views are best.”

Moore’s performance as Cathy Whitaker is a high-wire act between melodrama and camp. Ultimately, she convinces us that there is a heart beating with unspoken passion behind that poise and style. Moore slowly reveals the force driving the charade: fear. Fear of losing respect. But most of all, fear of loneliness. Then, as her relationships begin to show themselves for the shams they truly are, she begins to suffocate, and she nearly breaks our hearts.

Moore is a formidable actress. She submerges herself in a sea of mannerism, attaining the sad paralysis of a geisha in full-makeup, with her family at risk if the makeup cracks. I half expected her to go into one of those gasping fits she suffered in another Haynes film: Safe. (That remains her finest performance, and it would be interesting to view the films back to back, to see how things have changed and yet remain the same.)

It’s to Moore’s credit that she makes us care about Cathy because the rest of the characters seem bound by Haynes’ desire to prove something we already know: that the puritanical moralism of the 50s was largely a disease of hypocrisy, repression,  and ignorance.

I’ve been saying “the 50s”, but I mean 1957. You can sense the 60s coming because there are already cracks in the social codes. Black people are becoming more confident and even aggressive at challenging the “norm”. Homosexuals are less careful about hiding themselves. Haynes underlines this by setting his story in the autumn, thrusting the redness of the leaves in our face, reminding us that this is the end of an era. It may also be Cathy’s last chance to find a real relationship.

Cathy’s husband Frank is played with somber intensity by Dennis Quaid in the most impressive year of his career as an actor. Frank has a prestigious job as a sales executive for a television company called Magnatech. He doesn’t just work for the company — he represents it, with his square-shouldered stature and comic-book grin. Standing next to Cathy, they make a devastatingly commercial image, and thus their likenesses are used as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech.”

But Cathy is the real picture, the one the magazines want to champion as the ideal American family woman. Her hair holds its shape in a perfectly puffed coif, as polished as her always-ready rapturous smile that overstates the smallest of pleasantries. While she laughs off the flattery that surrounds her family, she’s nearly convinced of their perfection. Thus, she’s on the edge of a cliff, and just a corner of the truth about life will be enough to make her fall.

Far From Heaven pays homage to the films of Douglas Sirk in its exploration of these 50′s mores. Most critics are talking about the way that Sirk hinted at repressed sexuality and social taboos in films like Imitation of Life and All That Time Allows. But most modern moviegoers don’t remember Sirk. They’re more familiar with seeing such happy charades in films like Blue Velvet. Thus, they’ll be quick to pick up that nothing is as it seems. The only suspense lies in guessing what manner of monster will rear its ugly head.

In this case, there are a host of monsters – although none of the supernaturally vile variety found in Lynchworld. The community is rife with prejudice, sexual and racial. It’s a community of hypocrites and slanderers, motivated by the fear of dealing with truths that are unpleasant, complicated, or unfamiliar to them. Cathy is as afraid as any of them. We know she’ll be the Michael Jordan of good manners and poise – as long as she doesn’t catch her husband kissing another man. When she does catch him, she learns that perhaps “candid views” are not always best.

But candid views do tend to betray more truth than a magazine advertisement. And by learning the truth about her husband, Cathy can finally admit the truth about herself … and that is that she is desperately lonely behind that smile. She and her children suffer from Frank’s neglect..

Thus, she finds it difficult to hide her desire and longing when she meets the family’s attractive new gardener, Raymond. Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) is impossibly charming and eligible. He talks to her with more sincerity and truth than she’s used to. She’s drawn to it. The truth brings with it a scent of freedom from charades. But Raymond is black, and thus he is forbidden fruit. In Connecticut in 1957, integration is a very bad word. The mere touch of Cathy’s hand on Raymond’s shoulder is enough to send electrical jolts through the whole community.

Frank and Cathy’s repressed passions make them walking time bombs. Their friends, an array of smiling upper-class villains, keep busy sharpening their tongues for vicious gossip. Cathy begins two desperate endeavors: one to quiet her broken heart and another to try and patch up the pretty sails of a ship that’s sinking from a break below the waterline. She knows that if her friends catch the merest hint of the unpleasant truth, those tea-party tyrannosaurs will devour the Whitakers’s reputation in one fell phoning frenzy.

Far From Heaven deserves applause for more than just Moore and Quaid. Dennis Haysbert is charming as the off-limits romancer. (It’s a part he played before opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field – the similarity is uncanny. Viola Davis is also memorable as Cathy’s quiet but watchful and wise housemaid.) The sets are perfectly pristine: I’ll get to that in a moment. And over all of this, Haynes pours   Elmer Bernstein’s score, thick and slow and emotional, making this homage to 50s films too perfect to be true.

Further, Haynes commendably avoids labeling any one character or group “the villains.” Everyone is at fault, including Cathy. Each character, regardless of sexuality or color, is so imprisoned by fear of societal disgrace and personal injury, that Kathy cannot find a peer or a shoulder to cry on. Slowly, the film becomes a tragedy and a horror film all in one.

In spite of all this truthful storytelling and powerful acting, I never felt emotionally drawn into the film. Since I feel strongly about these themes, I had to conclude that I was distracted by something. Haynes’s strength is also his weakness. He layers the film in too much makeup. In his efforts to get the time exactly right, and to expose the problems of the time, he goes overboard. Everything becomes a symbol, and every smiling small-talk exchange is top-heavy with irony.

And because we 90s folks are so “enlightened”, we can nod enthusiastically as every point Haynes makes. Neglect of loved ones, bad! Prejudice, confining social manners, gossip … all baaaad. When Raymond tells Cathy he wishes that people “for one fleeting instant … would see beyond the color, the surface of things”, the line is underlined and highlighted. An honorable theme, absolutely. But it’s all so tidily packaged for us by the conductor that we don’t have much to do as a choir but holler hallelujahs.

Haynes’ conviction about these things drives him to error. The characters around Cathy and Raymond eventually become so consumed with their prejudice and selfishness that they toe the line of caricature.  The Coen Brothers would have enjoyed the caricature, and made them endearingly funny, like the overbearing neighbors in Raising Arizona. But Haynes doesn’t let us warm to anyone beyond his two moral visionaries, Cathy and Raymond. He constantly reminds us this is a cold cold world that will keep our heroes apart. We can’t help but hope Cathy ends up with Raymond. He’s the only relaxed, casual, three-dimensional character in the film — one with just a streak of the unpredictable in him. .

I eventually came to hope Cathy would escape not only her community, but her director. I get the same feeling watching Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. In spite of “realistic” physical detail, the writing seems focused on emphasizing one character’s misery like a machine designed for torture.

I’ll be honest: there was another factor preventing me from enjoying the film. The folks sitting behind me were clearly the film’s ideal audience. They were probably courting in the late 50s, because they immediately became vocally nostalgic. I realized that not only was I going to be privy to the director’s social commentary, but also an unwilling guest on a trip down memory lane. So believe me, I was convinced and miserably impressed by Haynes’ exacting period detail, from the wallpapers to the expletives (“Jeez” and “Awww shucks”.) So impressed that by fifteen minutes into the film I’d nearly chewed off some fingers.

This authenticity reminded of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, which was overseen by the same production designer: Mark Friedberg. Lee’s film also explored frustrated desires and cracked facades, and its title emphasized the coldness of things. But Lee used so much restraint in his his adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel, we were able to escape the pretension of its preachy title and enjoy the personalities, the accidents, the life of that film.

As I watched Gosford Park again this week, a film that emphasizes social manners and repression as much or more than this film, the exacting period detail and the highly-mannered behavior of the characters seemed absolutely reckless, rife with accident, surprise, humor, affection… even hope. It could not be boiled down to a lesson or a line. Beauty allows for the possibility of new discoveries with each encounter. It could be that Haynes’ commitment to imitate movies of the 50s prevented him from this. And as an homage, Far From Heaven is a wonderful work. But I so much prefer the subtle suggestion of meaning to the sawblade of agenda.

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