Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson Running Time: 1:47 Country: USA Year: 2002 Web: Official Site
Todd Haynes honors the artistry of 1950's director Douglas Sirk, but he does more than simply showcasing themes or simple elements of Sirk's style. Haynes replicates completely and perfectly the 1950's filmic conception, but since this is 2002 and not 1957, he goes quite a bit further with the story and characters. The thing to remember, though, is that this is a movie stylized after the movies. It is not a movie that realistically reflects, from a 2002 point of view, what the 1950's were like in the USA. This is confusing, because Sirk was limited in the 50's by the morals, censors and conventions of the day. Haynes is trying to do something unusual, somehow managing to contrast some of the values of the 21st century versus the 20th century, but within the context of both 50 years ago and today. This is a sort of remake, but a remake not of a movie itself, but of a movie's possibilities, had our world been different.
Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, picture-perfect housewife married to Frank (Dennis Quaid), top sales executive for a then-modern techno company. They have two well-mannered kids under the age of 10, and the family and home are all picture-perfect in the manner that only Hollywood and Televisionland could devise. In other words, these people represent characters representing people from another time and another place. They are not real. Yet, the fact is, these characters, 1950s characters from 1950s films, represented a humanity that had issues with realness in the first place. That is what Haynes is dealing with here, and he is successful because he has managed to get such fabulous acting out of Moore and Quaid, as well as Dennis Haysbert who plays Raymond, the Whitaker's Negro (not black) gardener, and because of the truly fantastic cinematography, production design, art direction, costume and make-up and all the visual elements.
The 21st century audience knows from the start, before anything happens at all onscreen, that the picture perfection is as unreal as the movies. When the emotional lives of the characters begin to assert themselveswhen Frank's drinking goes out of control, when Cathy has a special moment with Raymond, when Frank takes himself to a gay bar rather than home after the work daywe, the 21st century audience, know how to follow the story. But, look! The characters in the film seem to flop around like hooked fish on the beach. They live in a time when they could comfortably do very little within the context of these situations. Interracial friendship (let alone romance), homosexuality, divorcethese were some of America's taboos which the movie industry danced around in those days. Raymond is the only figure who figures realistically. I'm not sure what Haynes implies by this: perhaps that the cultural outcasting of a black person at least gives him some familiarity with reality, and ultimately makes him the only source of wisdom in the film.
This movie has some incredibly painful scenes of people trying to cope as their carefully structured lives disintegrate around them. Frank's struggle to deal with his sexuality is powerfully portrayed in Quaid's acting and in the writing. Cathy is an innocent, who's simply forced to reckon with an unforgiving reality that she's lived within but never really acknowledged. When these two people have to actually talk to each other about his sexuality and what that implies about their future (or lack of) together, we see that neither of them can even muster a complete sentence. They don't seem to have any language tools; their separate emotional experiences completely do them in. This was one of the most realistic scenes in the film: characters from the 50's didn't have scripts that gave them sufficient words to deal with the irrationalities and taboos of sexuality. They were lost souls.
Haynes takes these folks into uncharted territory for them, but we, the audience, knew very well where they'd likely end up. Thus, Far From Heaven feels like a bit of a trick, on its own characters, and on the audience, too. I felt played with and confused. Moved, for sure, but the layers of cinematic unreality contrasted abruptly with the realistic acting, and I left the theater feeling somehow bruised. There seems to have been a lesson in this film: "See, the 50's were really not so swell after all." But I knew that already. The children of Cathy and Frank are the grown-up audience-members of today. In this "perfect" household they were ignored and told to go to their rooms while the adults struggled with the adult problems. The kids got ballet lessons and toys, but no real attention from their parents. This periodically inserted counterpoint of "and now, here's another moment of what parenting was like in the 50's" was actually brilliant. I wonder what Haynes would do 50 years from now, with material from today's films to work with, and I wonder what the grown-up kids of today's movies would have to say about their parents.