Published in 24fps, December 2003.

Written and directed by Todd Haynes.
Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson.
USA / 2002 / 35mm

By Dan Sallitt

There are two ways of thinking about Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven: as a story of forbidden love, or as a recreation of the style of 50s melodrama. There's a gap between these two ways of looking at the film—the love story absorbs us, the period recreation distances us—and filmgoers find that gap easily, and spend their time in the theater exploring the rules of this formal game. Many feel that Haynes has made a masterpiece, and I'm not too far from that opinion myself. But it's easier to react to the film's power than it is to put all the pieces together. What exactly is this 50s-flavored artificial universe that Haynes has created or recreated, and how does it pay off with full-bodied emotion, when one might think that it would have the effect of putting emotions between quotation marks?

For starters, it's not immediately obvious what exactly Haynes has recreated. What principle is this universe true to?

1) We can probably dismiss out of hand the idea that Far From Heaven attempts an accurate portrayal of 50s life, if only because such a thing couldn't possibly be verified. At any rate, few viewers will be tempted to mistake the film for a document of the way things were.  Certainly Haynes' universe includes striking sociological observations: for instance, the parents' tough-love approach to childrearing, which feels almost abusive by modern standards. Yet, even though nearly every 50s evocation in the film has some basis in actual custom or design, Haynes' portrait of the time is so selective and outlandish that one doesn't think to speak of realism.

2) Far From Heaven is often called a recreation of the films of Douglas Sirk, and particularly of the excellent All That Heaven Allows. We find borrowings not only from that film (the opening shots; the autumnal small town color scheme; the gardener as romantic figure; the approbation of the community stifling the female lead's love affair), but also from Imitation of Life (the white protagonist's unwitting racial condescension, the black maid's active private life that remains outside the film's scope), Written on the Wind (the tortured, failing husband whose frustration begets violence), and There's Always Tomorrow (the fusion of corporate and family life). Haynes' almost comic exaggeration of theme and decor, though much more overt than anything in Sirk, is no doubt partly inspired by Sirk, or perhaps by modern commentary on him.

But Far From Heaven includes other period movie allusions as well. It's impossible not to think of Otto Preminger when we first see the gay bar, which so resembles the one Don Murray glimpsed in Advise and Consent; when Dennis Quaid actually enters the bar, I felt as if I was entering a 3-D recreation of the never-penetrated space in Preminger's film. Other hints of Preminger in Haynes’ film are probably due only to a certain temperamental affinity between the two directors.  But one notes in passing a visual and dynamic similarity between Dennis Haysbert's farewell to Julianne Moore and the equivalent scene with Dana Andrews and Joan Crawford in Preminger's Daisy Kenyon. And the spasmodic blocking of the scene in which Moore discovers Quaid in flagrante delicto in his office evokes the Preminger of Bunny Lake is Missing or Hurry Sundown more than it does Sirk's elegant stasis.

More substantially, Haynes seems to be drawing from Max Ophuls' great melodrama The Reckless Moment almost as much as from Sirk's films. The romantic configuration of Far From Heaven resembles The Reckless Moment more than any Sirk film: in both stories, a dutiful wife, undergoing a family crisis, is gradually drawn toward an outsider figure with whom romance is impossible. More generally, both the Haynes and the Ophuls focus on the demands of raising a family and maintaining a social equilibrium, with a focus on the quotidian that is rare in melodrama. Near the end of Far From Heaven, Haynes pays homage with a direct borrowing from Ophuls' film: Moore lies sobbing on her bed in her dark room after the loss of her forbidden love, and the phone rings to draw her back to mundane life.

And then there is Haynes’ frequent use of canted camera angles, a melodramatic device common in the 50s but not particularly associated with any of the above directors.

3) So is Far From Heaven a synthetic recreation of the movie universe circa 1957, rather than an attempt to emulate one filmmaker? There's a lot in the film to support this idea, not least Elmer Bernstein's anachronistic score and the florid title design. Still, even though it's hard to draw any distinction between our cultural mythology and our movie mythology, too much of Far From Heaven seems to be reaching beyond movies, constructing its artificial universe from broader and more general associations. The almost mythological depictions of Quaid's working world and Moore's housewife social scene could probably be traced to some movie antecedents, but they are primarily projections of our generalized notions of 50s life. Similarly, the aforementioned theme of 50s parenting draws on certain archetypes that may have been propagated through movies and TV shows of the era, but Haynes' stylized concept (the children in the film make many requests, but not one is granted—discipline here verges on total denial) is no mere reference.

Mark Friedberg’s eye-popping production design, possibly the film’s most distinctive quality, also seems like more than just an attempt to reproduce the sets of 50s films. In fact, the excess of Far From Heaven's art direction would surely have gotten Sirk thrown off the Universal lot. (I broke out in laughter at the point in the film when Quaid, standing in his hunter-green and brown business suite, is handed a day-glo lime green coffee cup by his secretary—the crowning touch in a scene full of design provocations. I persist in thinking that the humor is intentional.) The film's decor looks less like an old movie set than a medley of advertising graphics from the 50s; and less like an average 50s graphic than an exaggerated modern concept of what 50s graphics must have been like, based on the fruitier images from that era.

Haynes’ universe is less a recreation of Sirk or 50s cinema than a subjective, stylized mythology of the 50s, one that he hopes we will all recognize from our shared culture, but that he elaborates with his own insights. It draws heavily on movie iconography, but not exclusively: we are asked to enter a world that exists as a composite of our cultural memories, with the excess vividness that only memory provides. The first principle of this universe—certainly the first one we perceive—is that it be extreme and relentless to the point of parody. But, much like Sirk, Haynes follows a second, counterweighting principle: that this universe be filled in comprehensively with social and psychological observations, many of which fly in the face of entertainment traditions. The facade of old-time movie conventionality effectively disguises how little control the protagonists have, how many shortcomings they display, how messy and entropic their present and future lives are.

The archetypes in Far From Heaven are so extreme that they shade into camp. Haynes maintains in interviews that he refused to take a modern perspective ("There are no securing nods to how much more we know today"), and in fact nearly all of the dialogue, taken line by line, is plausible both psychologically and sociologically. But Haynes rigorously selects only conversation and behavior that fit his narrow schema of 50s life, and viewers naturally occupy a position of greater awareness than the characters, a position that easily tips into comedy at the characters' expense. Far From Heaven, like Haynes' earlier masterpiece Safe and his debut Superstar, therefore poses a problem for some viewers: is there a conflict between the campy detachment that is Haynes' baseline, and the empathy that he eventually guides us toward? Certainly the impact of these films depends on an early distance from the characters, a gap that Haynes eventually, almost surreptitiously closes. But there is an element of fun here that goes beyond mere distancing. Haynes wants to begin the film in a giddy state of sensory excitation, and has no interest in finding distance through minimalism or denial of pleasure. For him, there is no conflict between camp humor and empathy; he helps the audience reconcile these seeming opposites by eliminating overt condescension or mockery, but we are left to make the jump on our own.  If we accept the film, it guides us to a state of mind where there is not much of a barrier between laughing at people and sympathizing with them.

There are anachronistic elements in Far From Heaven, but they are the point of the film, not a break in its integrity: Haynes' imaginative recreation of the 50s is clearly marked as the product of our contemporary sensibilities, and his 50s simulacrum exists only to be played off against modern concerns. Conspicuously, the treatment of the husband's homosexuality plays out according to modern ideology (concealment, futile attempts at repression, a final embracing of possibilities); one can perhaps object that the husband's final acceptance of his gayness may come with too high a price tag for that 50s business-conditioned character to bear, but the breach of psychological realism seems part of a wistful historical meditation, almost like the dreamlike final episode of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. The treatment of race is anachronistic as well, and sometimes with an awkward effect on the character development: Haysbert's willful gesture of taking Moore to a black night spot turns out to have consequences well beyond what he is willing to endure, and it's hard to believe that this character's naiveté would extend so far. But the ultimate development of the race theme, Moore's capitulation to her interracial love, hovers in that magical realm between narrative artifice and psychological mystery. Is Moore's struggle against the boundaries of 50s decorum a formal game, an instance of a modern love story hemmed in by period constraints? Or has this conditioned, controlled housewife let slip the subterranean psychological forces that want to make a holocaust of everything she's ever valued? Both ways of looking at the love story are plausible: Haynes gives us a number of clues that Moore's character might have a defiant, apocalyptic agenda that is secret even to herself. The great power of Far From Heaven emerges from the gap between these poles of artifice and realism.

The layer of psychological plausibility that makes this formal experiment work so smoothly comes largely from Julianne Moore’s astonishing performance. More a collaborating artist than an interpreter, Moore bides her time patiently through the early scenes that establish her character in broad strokes, waiting for those moments where she expresses wells of feeling that neither we nor her own character can ever fully understand. Moore's character topples into her suppressed emotions in the scene in which a bellowing Quaid furiously reproaches her for having been seen in public with Haysbert. First surprised and conciliatory, then defending her innocence, the placid housewife suddenly catches a wave of fury and anguish and travels from moderation to the edge of screaming abandon in the space of few sentences. Even more affecting is her final hopeless (and practically suicidal) attempt to preserve some scrap of her friendship with Haysbert: after her reticent lover quietly destroys her last hope, Haynes cuts back to Moore, smiling her sweet social smile, concealing her loss reflexively in keeping with her character, though no concealment can help her any more.

One of the many riddles of this perplexing, many-leveled love story is that its most moving moment should be, not a kiss or a tearful farewell, but the appearance of the blue, 50s-style title "The End" superimposed over the last of a series of long shots of Moore returning to her now-desolated life. The stylistic war between the modern love story and the conventions of a repressed era rattled the foundations of Haynes' brightly colored back-lot universe, but convention gently establishes dominance in the end.