Far From Heaven (2002)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker), Dennis Quaid (Frank Whitaker), Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan), Patricia Clarkson (Eleanor Fine), Viola Davis (Sybil), James Rebhorn (Dr. Bowman), Bette Henritze (Mrs. Leacock), Michael Gaston (Stan Fine), Ryan Ward (David Whitaker), Lindsay Andretta (Janice Whitaker), Jordan Puryear (Sarah Deagan), Kyle Timothy Smith (Billy Hutchinson), Celia Weston (Mona Lauder).
If Todd Haynes Far From Heaven was nothing more than an homage of the 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas that so clearly inspired it, it would still be a great film. As is usual with Haynes, he pays meticulous attention to detail, and along with cinematographer Edward Lachman (marking their first collaboration together – Haynes has yet to use a different cinematographer since) – has stunningly re-created the look of those films to a T. The bright, bold, garish colors, the people always dressed up, no matter the time of day or night, the seemingly perfect suburbia, that is actually filled with decay. The dialogue that is sometimes shockingly on the nose, and the performances that do not try for naturalism – for a sort of heightened reality. There isn’t a trick that Haynes and company miss in Far From Heaven. In many ways, what Haynes has done in Far From Heaven is make an almost exact replica of those Sirk films – except he has made one that is far more explicit than Sirk ever could have dreamed of making. While Sirk’s films would always hint at topics like homosexuality and inter-racial romance – in ways that seem obvious today, but somehow slide by many when they were made – Haynes’ film deals with them directly. This, by itself, would make Far From Heaven a wonderful film. But it’s only part of what makes it, ultimately, a masterwork.
The film stars Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker – a happy housewife in 1957 Connecticut – with two perfect children (a boy and a girl, naturally) and a perfect husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who goes off to work in advertising, and comes home to picture perfect vision of domestic tranquility that Cathy has made for him. They have been used as the couple in some of his ads, and there is even a magazine piece being written about how perfect their life is. In the early scenes in the movie, everything seems perfect – yes, she does have to tell the children to watch their language when her son as “Jeez” – but, you know, boys will be boys. But gradually, we start to get hints that perhaps not everything is quite so perfect. At a get together with her girlfriend – over daiquiris – the women cannot help but giggle, and whisper when talking about how often their husbands insist on “it” – and a look of confusion momentarily comes across Cathy’s face, before she puts back up the mask of fake happiness. We soon realize why – as Haynes follows Frank through the shadows of the night, as he enters a movie theater by himself, and watches as men head off together into the balcony – and then when he stops in at a bar, frequented only by men, all of whom give him the side-eye, sizing him up. The domestic perfection is broken, once and for all, one evening when Cathy goes to see Frank at the office – to bring him his dinner, since he has to work late, and discovers that he is not alone. Frank confesses his transgressions – but vows to “beat this thing” and heads off to the doctor. Unable to talk to any of her friends about her true feelings, Cathy finds herself spending more time in the company of Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) – her black gardener, and a kind, thoughtful and gentle man. When the magazine profile comes out, and it mentions that Cathy is “kind to negroes” all of her friends giggle and treat it as a joke. As she is seen more and more often in his company, it ceases to be a laughing matter.
There are many things that make Far From Heaven work – the meticulous craft being one of them, especially the beautiful cinematography of Edward Lachman, and the score by Elmer Bernstein, who brilliantly recreates the score of the era. The art direction and costume design are also perfect – not perfect in the way that is accurately reflects the 1950s, but perfect in the way it accurately reflects the art direction and costume design of the 1950s. The performances here are crucial as well. I often get annoyed when performances are called “brave” – especially when it just means that straight actors played gay characters (which isn’t brave) – but the performances here really are brave. The actors in Far From Heaven really risked looking like fools, trying to recreate an acting style that had been out of fashion for decades before they even started acting. Not only that, but there is a real danger that in recreating that acting style, even if they got the surface level correct, that they would miss the emotional underpinnings of the material. That makes it all the more impressive that the actors are able to make these characters seem real even under the deliberate artifice of the surface. Moore’s performance here is a masterclass in subtlety – as for the entirety of the movie, her character tries to keep on the mask of fake happiness, but lets it slip occasionally, when she is confronted with the reality of her situation. In the one moment that Haynes truly breaks from the dialogue of the 1950s – and Frank says “Fuck” – the look of Moore’s face is as if she has been slapped – the shock, and hurt and dismay is written there, even more than when, later in the film, Frank actually does hit her. Then there are moments – when she is with Ray – when she is happy, and it’s a slightly different look than her fake mask of happiness – it’s genuine. It is a stunning and brilliant performance – equal to the best work of her career. For his part, Quaid is able to the play the square jawed, Ward Cleaver part to perfection, but again, he lets his mask slip – to allow the audience to see how frightened and insecure he is. Quaid has never been better. Haysbert seems to have the easiest role of the three – the Rock Hudson role as it were (Hudson often starred as the portrait of male perfection for Sirk) – but it cannot be easy not to appear completely stiff in a role like this, and Haysbert pulls it off brilliantly. Add in great support from Patricia Clarkson – as Cathy’s best friend, whose liberal leanings have their limits, and Viola Davis, as Cathy’s maid, who sees more than she lets on, and you have one of the best ensembles you could ask for.
On its surface level then, Far From Heaven is brilliant – a masterful homage to Douglas Sirk, that is actually better than anything Douglas Sirk ever made (and I love Douglas Sirk). But I also think that Far From Heaven does do some things that run a little deeper than Sirk. This is a film that begins with absolute artifice, and then delves beneath that surface a little bit, before ending up back at the level of artifice again at the end. The film’s ending could hardly be described as happy, although it almost seems that way. Also, I find it fascinating that Haynes opts to stay with Cathy’s point-of-view throughout the film. Haynes is a gay after all, and yet in his study of homosexuality in the 1950s, he elects to stay focused on the more passive role of the wife, rather than the man fighting against what society has convinced him is evil. Like in Safe, where Haynes introduces a supposedly gay character (Peter), who we think may be a savior, and then turns him into a villain (maybe?), it’s a subversion of expectations – keeping our sympathy with Cathy, instead of Frank, that is a fascinating choice. This is also, strangely, a film I find far more sexual and erotic than Haynes’ previous films – which are much more frank in their depiction of sexuality than this one is (up until Carol, which is one of the most erotically charged movies ever made). There is an undercurrent of sexual energy in Far From Heaven which is hard to pin down, but is most definitely present.
In short, Far From Heaven is a masterpiece. I loved the film when I saw it back in 2002 – but perhaps I didn’t quite understand just how good it was. Watching it for the first time in perhaps a decade, I was stunned by how great it is. An absolutely exquisite film.