Desires of the heart
Portland director Todd Haynes’ stylish Far From Heaven wrings real emotions from ‘50s melodrama
Todd Haynes’ lushly stylized Far From Heaven builds a richly rewarding movie experience out of some provocative but seemingly unlikely materials.
As a kind of revisionist homage to the gaudily colorful domestic melodramas that Douglas Sirk made at Universal Pictures in the 1950s, Haynes’ film pushes its story beyond the campy excesses that made only fitful appearances in Sirk’s films. And it takes even bigger risks, stylistically and otherwise, by “outing” the allegedly repressed subtexts of Sirk’s films—issues of race, class, and gender—and making them boldly explicit and maybe even a little overstated.
It’s not enough that Frank and Kathleen (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) are having trouble living up to images of marital perfection that seem to come from period magazine ads even more than from ‘50s film and TV. Haynes heightens the dramatic stakes with seemingly reckless abandon: Husband Frank begins to realize he’s gay; wife Kathy and black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) edge into an improvised friendship which is immediately misinterpreted by the locals in the most malicious ways possible; and Kathy herself comes face to face with an existential void in her image as the perfect middle-class suburban housewife.
What saves the film from its own thematic overload is that it makes the implicit social-psychological hysteria of the Sirk films into an expressive (and perhaps expressionist) mode of stylization. It’s a convolutedly artificial movie about suffocating, artificial social-psychological structures, but it wrings real emotions, authentic drama and honest perspectives out of all that.
And it helps a good deal that all three of the principal actors do excellent work. Moore gives a keen sense of a woman who is blithely complacent and a little naive about the life she leads but whose latent sense of moral decencies keeps breaking forth. And Haysbert is very fine as a man whose integrity is so intense that he can rebel against racist strictures without ever seeming either militant or recklessly incautious.
Moore and Haysbert are both more appealing than Quaid, but his is the most remarkable performance in the film. Eschewing all the familiar tricks of his cocky movie persona, Quaid seems to have totally immersed himself in the body language of a wholly different kind of character. He has sufficient drab orderliness to pass for the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, but assorted small gestures—the way he holds a cigarette in particular—hint at a half-repressed libido that he is only just beginning to fully recognize.