Far from Heaven

Reviewed By Alexandre Paquin
Posted 01/11/03 08:29:50

"Returning Again to Peyton Place: Todd Haynes's 'Far from Heaven'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Writer-director Todd Haynes's "Far from Heaven" (2002) might be considered an overly melodramatic, stereotypical, and clichéd film, but it in fact cleverly uses clichés and stereotypes in order to savagely dispel them. It is one of the most intelligent and rewarding films of 2002.

In the fall of 1957, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a typical housewife living in a typical suburb near Hartford. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is an executive at Magnatech, a television set manufacturer. They are financially at ease, respected in their social circle, and give the external impression of being a perfectly united family as those portrayed in films and advertisements from the period. However, behind the appearance of unity, their marriage is on the verge of disintegration, for reasons which may bring scorn upon the family.

Touted as a darkly satirical revisiting of the works of director Douglas Sirk (All that Heaven Allows), Far from Heaven is a claustrophobic melodrama in which suburbia, and by reduction, the average household, with its prejudices and pretensions, serves as a microcosm of fifties America. Apart from a glimpse of a speech by President Eisenhower and a mention of Joseph McCarthy, what was going on in the United States or the rest of the world at the time is not discussed. Sputnik, for instance, was successfully launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, presumably during the time span of the film, but there is no mention of it. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have a picture of the era without having some reference to the Russians or the hydrogen bomb.

Haynes's film is a bold attempt on two fronts: to dispel myths about the "Golden Age" of America, and to hold up a mirror to our own attitudes. Other films have dealt with the deconstruction of the picture-perfect fifties America image, but for each such film, there are at least twice as many to reconstruct it. In fact, even at the time, films dealing with more controversial subjects were released. With the gradual relaxing of the Production Code in the second half of the 1950's, topics which would normally have been taboo began appearing on the screen, whether it was apparently unexplainable juvenile delinquency in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) or widespread naughtiness, fifties style, in Peyton Place (1957). Even Ben-Hur (1959), the most famous of all "Biblical epics," had, according to Gore Vidal, an intentional homosexual subtext. However, by the standards of today, these films would be considered mild, and their overt treatment of taboo issues, whitewashed. Far from Heaven, because it is detached from the period it covers, deliberately recreates the quaint and stiff texture of the films of the era to denounce the hypocrisy of the period, but also of our time.

Far from Heaven is intentionally postmodern yet remains heartfelt. Because we are able to measure the cultural differences between the late fifties and today, Far from Heaven's success is in making a modern audience realize that what we think today and the way we now express it may eventually be considered as artificial as the treatment of important issues fifty years ago. In one scene, a doctor explains that society has evolved in its treatment of homosexuality, and explains that there is now a cure for the "illness", but we know from perspective that what appeared to be open-mindedness during what is arguably the most conservative period of the twentieth century is, by the standards of today, primitive. But because the subject is, to some extent, still taboo and perhaps even nettlesome, we realize that our present views on homosexuality might be considered outdated in the near future. The film also plays on our conventions of gender, with a healthy reference to the discrepancies between the on-screen image and the personal life of leading man Rock Hudson, who not surprisingly starred in a plethora of Sirk films, including All that Heaven Allows.

Far from Heaven's treatment of racial relations follows the same pattern. The fifties middle class's superficial commitment to racial integration and latent prejudice toward blacks are put in full view. When Cathy Whitaker befriends her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), she is frowned upon by her community as though she had turned Communist. Not surprisingly, race is still a controversial issue today.

However, while Haynes's film is a delightfully effective reappraisal of popular culture and social conventions, it is, almost certainly purposefully, not engaging as a melodrama. In fact, there is no visible dedication to the genre except as a vehicle through which Haynes's social commentary is channeled. Melodramatic films as done by Sirk and others are almost unbearable today, but although Haynes has very few concerns for the genre, he seems to have wanted to retain the seriousness with which such films were received then, perhaps in the belief that people would understand his message beneath the intentional camp if they did not dismiss it as unintentionally hilarious. This implied making the issues at stake more direct for modern audiences.

Far from Heaven's greatest problem is not that it is campy, but that it not campy enough. The old-fashioned credits (the title is displayed slantwise, in a handwritten style), a haunting score by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, exquisite set decoration, filled with fake wooden panes and other kitschy mementos from the era, and Edward Lachman's perfect colour-saturated cinematography reminiscent of old Technicolor films, which would make even the most recent buildings look period (an art gallery in the film was almost certainly not built by 1957), seem to have been included as artifices to create an old-fashioned atmosphere that could not be instilled by the story alone.

What the story ultimately lacks is the obscure innuendos and double entendres, euphemisms and well-placed silences, tell-tale clues that filled films from the fifties to indicate to the viewer that something disreputable was being discussed while never being too explicit about it. There are occasional touches of this subtlety -- one scene at an art gallery and another at a ballet recital, for instance -- but Far from Heaven's treatment of issues, particularly homosexuality, is too explicit to insert the viewer into the period it tries so hard to imitate for ironic purposes. Modern audiences, just as audiences fifty years ago, would have picked up the references even if they were subdued and never depicted directly, but, predictably, even more people would have dismissed it as camp than now.

In spite of all those concerns, Far from Heaven is an excellent film, but is unlikely to have any sort of recognition at the Academy Awards for a variety of reasons -- its budget is too small, it is social comment disguised as melodrama instead of a glossy and inoffensive biopic, it will be dismissed as camp by many voters, and those who understand its dark parody of camp will want nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, the film's highlights are a restrained performance by Julianne Moore, and excellent supporting actors in Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and Patricia Clarkson as Cathy's friend.

The music and cinematography perfectly serve the setting, but Haynes's apparent concern to make a blaring, instead of subtle, social comment slightly mar one of the finest pictures of 2002.

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