Published in 24fps, December 2003.
Written and directed by Todd
Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson.
USA / 2002 / 35mm
two ways of thinking about Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven: as a
of forbidden love, or as a recreation of the style of 50s melodrama.
gap between these two ways of looking at the film—the love story
the period recreation distances us—and filmgoers find that gap easily,
spend their time in the theater exploring the rules of this formal
feel that Haynes has made a masterpiece, and I'm not too far from that
myself. But it's easier to react to the film's power than it is to put
pieces together. What exactly is this 50s-flavored artificial universe
Haynes has created or recreated, and how does it pay off with
emotion, when one might think that it would have the effect of putting
between quotation marks?
starters, it's not immediately obvious what exactly Haynes has
principle is this universe true to?
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
couldn't possibly be verified. At any rate, few viewers will be tempted
mistake the film for a document of the way things were.
Certainly Haynes' universe includes striking sociological
for instance, the parents' tough-love approach to childrearing, which
almost abusive by modern standards. Yet, even though nearly every 50s
in the film has some basis in actual custom or design, Haynes' portrait
time is so selective and outlandish that one doesn't think to speak of
Far From Heaven is often called a recreation of the films of
and particularly of the excellent All That Heaven Allows. We
borrowings not only from that film (the opening shots; the autumnal
color scheme; the gardener as romantic figure; the approbation of the
stifling the female lead's love affair), but also from Imitation of
(the white protagonist's unwitting racial condescension, the black
private life that remains outside the film's scope), Written on the
(the tortured, failing husband whose frustration begets violence), and There's
Tomorrow (the fusion of corporate and family life). Haynes' almost
comic exaggeration of theme and decor, though much more overt than
Sirk, is no doubt partly inspired by Sirk, or perhaps by modern
Far From Heaven includes other period movie allusions as well.
impossible not to think of Otto Preminger when we first see the gay
so resembles the one Don Murray glimpsed in Advise and Consent;
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
Preminger in Haynes’ film are probably due only to a certain
affinity between the two directors. But
one notes in passing a visual and dynamic similarity between Dennis
farewell to Julianne Moore and the equivalent scene with Dana Andrews
Crawford in Preminger's Daisy Kenyon. And the spasmodic
blocking of the
scene in which Moore discovers Quaid in flagrante delicto in his office
the Preminger of Bunny Lake is Missing or Hurry Sundown
it does Sirk's elegant stasis.
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
more than any Sirk film: in both stories, a dutiful wife, undergoing a
crisis, is gradually drawn toward an outsider figure with whom romance
impossible. More generally, both the Haynes and the Ophuls focus on the
of raising a family and maintaining a social equilibrium, with a focus
quotidian that is rare in melodrama. Near the end of Far From Heaven,
pays homage with a direct borrowing from Ophuls' film: Moore lies
on her bed in her dark room after the loss of her forbidden love, and
rings to draw her back to mundane life.
then there is Haynes’ frequent use of canted camera angles, a
device common in the 50s but not particularly associated with any of
So is Far From Heaven a synthetic recreation of the movie
1957, rather than an attempt to emulate one filmmaker? There's a lot in
to support this idea, not least Elmer Bernstein's anachronistic score
florid title design. Still, even though it's hard to draw any
between our cultural mythology and our movie mythology, too much of Far
Heaven seems to be reaching beyond movies, constructing its
universe from broader and more general associations. The almost
depictions of Quaid's working world and Moore's housewife social scene
probably be traced to some movie antecedents, but they are primarily
of our generalized notions of 50s life. Similarly, the aforementioned
50s parenting draws on certain archetypes that may have been propagated
movies and TV shows of the era, but Haynes' stylized concept (the
the film make many requests, but not one is granted—discipline here
total denial) is no mere reference.
eye-popping production design, possibly the film’s most
distinctive quality, also seems like more than just an attempt to
sets of 50s films. In fact, the excess of Far From Heaven's art
would surely have gotten Sirk thrown off the Universal lot. (I broke
laughter at the point in the film when Quaid, standing in his
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
in thinking that the humor is intentional.) The film's decor looks less
old movie set than a medley of advertising graphics from the 50s; and
an average 50s graphic than an exaggerated modern concept of what 50s
must have been like, based on the fruitier images from that era.
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
culture, but that he elaborates with his own insights. It draws heavily
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
provides. The first principle of this universe—certainly the first one
perceive—is that it be extreme and relentless to the point of parody.
much like Sirk, Haynes follows a second, counterweighting principle:
universe be filled in comprehensively with social and psychological
observations, many of which fly in the face of entertainment
facade of old-time movie conventionality effectively disguises how
control the protagonists have, how many shortcomings they display, how
entropic their present and future lives are.
archetypes in Far From Heaven are so extreme that they shade
Haynes maintains in interviews that he refused to take a modern
("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
naturally occupy a position of greater awareness than the characters, a
that easily tips into comedy at the characters' expense. Far From
like Haynes' earlier masterpiece Safe and his debut Superstar,
poses a problem for some viewers: is there a conflict between the
campy detachment that is Haynes' baseline, and the empathy that he
guides us toward? Certainly the impact of these films depends on an
distance from the characters, a gap that Haynes eventually, almost
surreptitiously closes. But there is an element of fun here that goes
mere distancing. Haynes wants to begin the film in a giddy state of
excitation, and has no interest in finding distance through minimalism
of pleasure. For him, there is no conflict between camp humor and
helps the audience reconcile these seeming opposites by eliminating
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.
anachronistic elements in Far From Heaven, but they are the
the film, not a break in its integrity: Haynes' imaginative recreation
50s is clearly marked as the product of our contemporary sensibilities,
50s simulacrum exists only to be played off against modern concerns.
Conspicuously, the treatment of the husband's homosexuality plays out
to modern ideology (concealment, futile attempts at repression, a final
embracing of possibilities); one can perhaps object that the husband's
acceptance of his gayness may come with too high a price tag for that
business-conditioned character to bear, but the breach of psychological
seems part of a wistful historical meditation, almost like the
episode of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. The treatment of
anachronistic as well, and sometimes with an awkward effect on the
development: Haysbert's willful gesture of taking Moore to a black
turns out to have consequences well beyond what he is willing to
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
love, hovers in that magical realm between narrative artifice and
mystery. Is Moore's struggle against the boundaries of 50s decorum a
game, an instance of a modern love story hemmed in by period
constraints? Or has
this conditioned, controlled housewife let slip the subterranean
forces that want to make a holocaust of everything she's ever valued?
of looking at the love story are plausible: Haynes gives us a number of
that Moore's character might have a defiant, apocalyptic agenda that is
even to herself. The great power of Far From Heaven emerges
from the gap
between these poles of artifice and realism.
layer of psychological plausibility that makes this formal experiment
smoothly comes largely from Julianne Moore’s astonishing performance.
collaborating artist than an interpreter, Moore bides her time
the early scenes that establish her character in broad strokes, waiting
those moments where she expresses wells of feeling that neither we nor
character can ever fully understand. Moore's character topples into her
suppressed emotions in the scene in which a bellowing Quaid furiously
her for having been seen in public with Haysbert. First surprised and
conciliatory, then defending her innocence, the placid housewife
catches a wave of fury and anguish and travels from moderation to the
screaming abandon in the space of few sentences. Even more affecting is
final hopeless (and practically suicidal) attempt to preserve some
scrap of her
friendship with Haysbert: after her reticent lover quietly destroys her
hope, Haynes cuts back to Moore, smiling her sweet social smile,
loss reflexively in keeping with her character, though no concealment
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.