Friday, 18 May 2007
FAR FROM HEAVEN
Far From Heaven (2002) dir. Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid
David Whitaker: “Aw jeez”
Cathy Whitaker: “We don't use language like that in this house.”
“Far From Heaven” is a rare film that pays homage to old Hollywood, without spoofing it. In the 1950’s Douglas Sirk directed a series of so-called “woman’s pictures” aimed at the female, married, suburban middle class wasp demographic. Before the era of TV, the Sirk melodramas were the soap operas of its day. The frequent stars were Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and because of Hudson’s closeted homosexuality, after his death the Sirk films seemed to take on a more complex meaning. So where, on the surface, the films would appear to be light, and fluffy, forgettable entertainment, in fact, was a distinctly liberal subtextual form of expression. Cut to 50 years later, Todd Haynes, the talented indie filmmaker (“Velvet Goldmine”, “Poison”, “Safe”) recreated the look, feel, mood, and subtext of the Sirk films in “Far From Heaven.”
In the film, Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, the prototypical 50’s suburban homemaker. She wears her a-line skirts, hosts daiquiri parties for her gossiping neighbours and is staunchly loyal to her hardworking businessman husband, Frank. One day Cathy sees a new gardener working in her backyard. The neighbours who first see him wandering around the backyard are shocked to see a “negro” invading her private property. Cathy introduces herself and learns he is Raymond Deacon (Dennis Haysbert) the son of her former gardener who has recently passed away. Slowly over time, Cathy and Raymond strike up a friendship, which blossoms into a closeted, passionate, but unconsummated, romance. The gossipy neighbours slowly learn about the taboo friendship and take action to shun her.
Cathy’s curiosity toward Raymond is partially brought on by her increasing alienation from her husband Frank. Nights without sex and increasingly ornery behavior has caused a rift in their relationship. One day, Cathy walks in on Frank kissing another man at his office. The sight is confusing and frightening to her. Frank clearly is suffering from inner emotional turmoil of living the life of a closeted gay man while creating a subterfuge life of ‘normality’ with a wife and 2 children.
Frank and Cathy seek therapy from a Freudian psychoanalyst. Frank doesn’t want to be a homosexual, and is looking for a method to purge his evil urges. They both know they can’t lead the comfortable socially-acceptable lifestyles without suppressing their mutual urges to be with whom they want to be. The emotional dilemmas are made even more complex because they are presented in the earnest and melodramatic fashion of the 1950’s films.
Dennis Quaid is superb as the emasculated, humiliated and self-loathing man, disgusted by his own desires. He’d rather have himself lobotomized than keep having his urges. Dennis Haysbert is sincere and earnest, and caught up in the whirlwind of love, but unaware of the potential ramifications of his actions. And rounding out the great cast is indie-queen, Patricia Clarkson, who provides the conflict as the leader of the gossiping neighbours and one who exposes Cathy’s infidelities.
The great cinematographer Ed Lachman bathes the film is beautiful saturated coloured light and pops out the lush autumn colours. He uses classical framing and camera moves that remind you how powerful a timely dolly or crane move can be when used sparingly. Lastly, it’s a joy to hear the last great score from legendary composer Elmer Bernstein who died in 2004.
Todd Haynes is a true auteur with an innate sense of story and filmmaking. The attempt of telling a story using a seemingly antiquated and dated style of filmmaking is commendable. But the ability to pull it off and make a great film which is not only watchable but emotionally truthful and compelling is genius. Enjoy.
PS I must acknowledge über-indie producer Christine Vachon (Killer Films), who for over 15 years manages to finance and realize the stunning visions of today best young filmmakers.
Buy it here: Far from Heaven