Far From Heaven

I am slowly adding reviews to this blog that I wrote for the Japan Times and the Asahi Shimbun in the 90s and early 00s and which are not currently on the web. This review from the Asahi was published in July 2003.

It’s been said that the scariest thing about the atom bomb is that it can’t be uninvented. Even if the nations of the world destroyed all the nuclear weapons in their possession tomorrow, the technology to make more would still exist. Something similar can be said about the academic theory known as postmodernism, which states that values have no objective validity. Though many believe that international society should return to the values of “simpler” times, now that we’ve been exposed to multiple viewpoints we can only do so by first returning to a state of ignorance about the world.

In such an environment, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is all the more impressive. A technically precise homage to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession), it should invite derision, since these days anything stylistically beholden to the 50s and 60s is either coated with a varnish of irony (Ocean’s 11) or displayed like a museum piece (Catch Me if You Can).

Haynes’ goal was to make a movie that today’s audiences would respond to the way contemporary audiences responded to Sirk’s soap operas. He establishes his setting boldly, with an eye-popping Technicolor master shot of a leafy Connecticut suburb in the fall of 1957. Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, the proverbial perfect housewife-mother who wins community image awards and blushes at gossip. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is a committed breadwinner, a World War II veteran now working as an executive for an up-and-coming consumer electronics company. Frank’s late evenings and a mysterious run-in with the police do nothing to dent Cathy’s faith and good humor, until, one night, she shows up unexpectedly at Frank’s office and finds him in the arms of another man.

Her world suddenly thrown for a loop, Cathy finds solace in conversations with her gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a Black widower and father who knows more about modern art and the truths of the heart than any of Cathy’s kitchen-drinking friends. Though Hartford, where the story is set, is ostensibly “unprejudiced,” Cathy soon realizes why the “negroes” all live in one section of town. As she grows closer to Raymond, tongues start to wag and the scales fall from Cathy’s eyes.

Haynes, whose last movie, the glam-rock epic Velvet Goldmine, never transcended its retro-camp production design, displays an even surer command of historical detail in Far From Heaven, but this time it doesn’t distract from the dramatic thrust of the story. The best evidence that Haynes is dead serious about his homage is that one doesn’t find the cinematic candor–women talking openly about sex, men kissing, the kind of naked emotional violence that Sirk would have been forced to tone down–at all odd in this milieu. More importantly, Haynes doesn’t handle his social themes condescendingly by telegraphing his disapproval from a more enlightened age (Sirk also addressed racial prejudice). He treats them as dramatic ideas that still have social significance.

However, in trying to adhere to the spirit of Sirk, Haynes falls victim to tropes that no longer apply. Raymond, for example, is too perfect. It was a standard for progressive-minded Hollywood in the 50s to overcompensate for previous wrongs perpetrated on Black characters by elevating them to the status of saints, but today the overcompensation seems obvious.

On the other hand, Frank’s attempt to “become normal”–he consults a psychiatrist who solemnly tells him that homosexuality can be treated as any other mental illness–is handled with tragic clarity. As much a follower of conventional thinking about sex and manly responsibility as he is a pushover for handsome young men, Frank credibly embodies the famous conflicted mentality of the 50s, and Quaid makes him both sympathetic and infuriating.

Though not suicidal, Cathy is almost identical to the character that Moore portrayed in The Hours, and, having played a more updated version of the sheltered suburban housewife in Haynes’ 1995 feature, Safe, she seems destined for typecast hell. But the breadth and depth of Moore’s performance–first personifying and then slowly breaking down the cool 50s feminine ideal without losing sight of her character–is what makes you forget that Far From Heaven, for all its skill and seriousness, is basically high-minded pastiche. She reminds you that great melodrama really is timeless and universal, no matter how objectively you look at it.

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