It’s difficult in our age of the retro post-modern pastiche not to assume that Far From Heaven, touted as a revisitation of Douglas Sirk’s baroque technicolor melodramas, is just another one of them. But Todd Haynes’s masterpiece will disappoint all of those looking for irony. Haynes gives us no reason to laugh at another age from the comfort of our more ‘enlightened’ present. By setting his film in the 1950s, he seems to be telling us: you see, we haven’t come as far as we thought we had. And he couldn’t have been more right.
Nevertheless, the real merit of Haynes’s story of a 1957 housewife, Cathy (played by Julianne Moore), is to mine real emotion by, paradoxically, avoiding going anywhere further than the surface of this universe of autumnal colours, stilted language, suppressed feelings and decorative nature. Whereas Sirk’s work was rich in subtext, visual metaphors, mirrors and window panels (as, in many ways, is Haynes’), Far From Heaven is, strangely, a realist metafilm.
The action is set in the upper-class suburb of Hatford, Connecticut, a self-contained universe where white people are nice until you stumble on one of the many taboos they live by, such as racism and homophobia. What becomes clear, though, is that of all the characters in the triangle that forms the core of the film – Cathy, Dennis Quaid’s gay husband Frank and Dennis Haysbert’s serene but strong black gardener, Raymond, who she falls for – it’s the woman and mother Cathy who in the end gets the worst deal.
Cathy is always smiling. She only raises her voice once – only to tone it down immediately after that. Her supposed best friend betrays her at the end and she sacrifices her own possibility of happiness for the sake of her desperate husband. You could analyse this film indefinitely from the prism of therapy and psychoanalysis, but Haynes avoids that – it’s all there on the screen. In one scene Cathy’s little daughter is observing her mother sprucing herself up and she says: ‘You say I look like you when you were little. Does that mean I’ll look like you when I grow up?’ It couldn’t be more straightforward: there’s no learning from life in Hartford – you simply keep on reproducing the patterns that you inherit.
The film is no doubt Moore’s vehicle, her second collaboration with Haynes since the seminal Safe (1995) in which she played a Californian housewife who becomes ill from an environmental disease. Moore has a unique film presence, and her acting style is different from everyone else working in mainstream cinema at the moment. Here, it seems like that the constraints of a genre give her more freedom to explore a type of convincing artificiality. She finds a method that is completely hers. Like a mask, her face never changes, but the range she achieves is bigger than any method actor would ever dream of. Embalmed by the codes of artifice, she fills the screen with an ominous presence. Iconic may be an overused word, but it does apply to her performance here.
Quaid also delivers an intelligent performance as an embattled man who discovers he’s gay, tries to ‘cure’ it, only to admit to himself that he can’t live in perpetual self-denial. Dennis Haysbert’s gardener is a perfect dissection of the reassuring masculinity that Cathy needs when her life starts to crumble, and which she is denied by society and her own conformism. Clad in a plaid flannel shirt that is redolent of Rock Hudson’s gardener in All That Heaven Allows (1955), he is a perfect incarnation of the single father and the gentle giant.
Far From Heaven is no small achievement, a clinically perfect combination of form and content which speaks deeply to the viewer because of its emotional truth and purity. As far as the filmic experience goes, this one is unforgettable.