The Hollywood melodrama of the í50s was a great form: a crucible for the guilts, the repressions, and the apocalyptic sensibility of the period. The highest achievements of the genre ó such as Douglas Sirkís All That Heaven Allows and Nicholas Rayís Bigger Than Life ó are unmatched in American cinema for their intensity and formal brilliance.
Writer/director Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine) isnít the first admirer of these films to have picked up on their progressive implications, but after his latest effort he can claim to be unique in the lengths he has gone to make this awareness explicit. Far from Heaven is a big-budget pastiche of í50s melodrama in which homosexuality and interracial love are the overt themes. The film is set in Hartford in 1957. TV manufacturer Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) and his devoted wife, Cathy (Julianne Moore), are a Sunday-supplement couple with a perfect house, two nice kids, and a black maid, Sybil (Viola Davis). The problem is that Frank is an alcoholic with a penchant for furtive gay sex. Isolated and deprived of emotional support, Cathy becomes drawn to her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert).
Haynes studiously re-creates certain aspects of Sirkís style: the use of décor to heighten a sense of entrapment and duplicity; the chilling pictorial irony. Itís a perfect Sirkian moment when a guest at Cathyís party remarks that Little RockĖstyle upheavals over integration could never occur in Hartford because "there are no negroes here" and the camera reframes on the black servant holding a tray in front of the man while two other blacks stand on duty in the background. In the scenes dealing with how Cathy and Frankís marriage breaks down, Haynes draws on Nicholas Rayís expressionism for inspiration ó and itís fitting that the filmís cinematographer, Edward Lachman, was Rayís last director of photography, on the Wenders-Ray collaboration Lightning over Water.
But whereas in Sirk and Ray, style, however extreme, always correlates with story and character, the style of Far from Heaven is also a conspicuous comment on itself. Much of the film is dominated by incredibly rich and warm autumnal colors ó to the point that the four women at an afternoon daiquiri party are all dressed in red or orange. Haynes emphasizes the art-object aspect of his movie by using dissolves to denote even trivial time lapses between shots, providing a distancing greater than that in Sirk films.
Elmer Bernsteinís lush score further æstheticizes the film, underlining its conventionality rather than its truth. When Cathy lies face down across her bed and weeps, Bernsteinís music wonít let us weep with her. The performance style of the film is also alienating, though more subtle: Moore showing Cathy overdoing the model-wife role; Quaidís tight, constricted vocal mannerisms as he squeezes the lines out in short fragments. Moore is impressive, Quaid a little less so, but the best performance in the film is Haybertís more naturalistic one.
Far from Heaven is most successful when itís least like its models. The scene in which Raymond brings Cathy to a black club is the equivalent of a party scene in All That Heaven Allows. Whatís new and remarkable in the Far from Heaven scene is Raymondís disingenuousness. He must be aware of the sexual undercurrent of his relationship with Cathy, and he must have chosen this place in order to bring it out, but he refuses to acknowledge as much. He looks at her with taunting superiority: heís waiting for her move, implying that itís up to her, as the white, to decide whether the hidden level of their relationship will be exposed.
After All That Heaven Allows, the movie that Far from Heaven most resembles is John Watersís Hairspray ó another film that should but couldnít have been made during the period in which it takes place (for Hairspray, the early í60s). Haynesís ambitions in Far from Heaven are, I think, the same as Watersís, but whereas in Hairspray Waters exceeds expectations for musicals by addressing racial integration and body image, Haynes, in choosing the melodrama as his form, raises expectations that he doesnít fulfill: he actually does less than what melodramas can do, and did.