Modeled after the Douglas Sirk melodramas, right down to the font of the title card and cymbal crescendos on the soundtrack, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is a merger between the gloss of “Old Hollywood” and the penetrating, intimate nature of his own genre deconstructions, devout in its adherence to style, but renegade in its refusal to obscure repression and discrimination. Sirk concealed his message beneath rigorous technique and a grandiose outpouring of emotion, but Haynes manages to temper the histrionics to reveal the injustices swept under the rug, recontextualizing the suburban utopia as fascist society.
At first glance, the Whitakers appear to be the perfect American family, boasting the wealth, beauty and etiquette that embodies an idealized vision of the mid-20th Century bourgeoisie. Cathy (Julianne Moore) is a housewife and Ladies Auxiliary member, more concerned with “civic causes” than her fellow socialites, but equally absorbed in the car pools, art openings and soirées that occupy the daily dance card. Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid) is an advertising man, charming and jovial on the surface, but harboring a clandestine existence after business hours, hidden beneath a mountain of lies and a worsening dependence on hard liquor. The revelation concealed behind Frank’s office door is nearly impossible to fathom, lifting the veil of complacency from Cathy’s eyes and outing Frank as a homosexual. He stutters as he tries to explain his efforts to suppress the urges, but he’s stifled by the mores of the time, preferring to protect his job and family instead of risk ostracization.
Gin-soaked from an evening of hobnobbing and intent on proving his masculinity, Frank ventures to get intimate with Cathy, breaking down when he can’t arouse himself for the endeavor. As tempers flare and the string section mounts, Frank strikes his wife, leaving a sizable bruise on her forehead that acts as a physical manifestation of systemic oppression. Cathy hides the wound beneath a lock of her hair, secretly sobbing over her dissolving marriage in the shrubbery that wraps around her residence, sheltered from plain view. Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her African-American gardener and acquaintance, notices her melancholy state and offers sympathetic words, his placid demeanor inspiring the reserved Cathy to join him on a countryside excursion. Isolated from their social circles by miles of forest, the pair develop a natural chemistry despite their racial and economic differences, recognizing that through confiding and vulnerability, that which is dissimilar is “no longer really outside.”
Sharing cocktails and a slow dance, the couple never muster the courage to kiss, daring only to embrace during their brief respite from reality. Unbeknownst to the ill-fated lovers, black patrons and white passersby have already set the rumor mill churning, inspiring speculation strong enough to fall into Frank’s lap, forcing Cathy to fire her trusted confidante in the name of “reputation.” Ironically, Frank would abandon his wife months later for a younger beau, taking a chance on love despite the risks, an option that would be unreasonable for Raymond and Cathy. Left alone and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, our protagonist cries as she straddles their twin beds, the location of a passionless marriage that will act as a symbolic ball and chain for the rest of her existence. The only pleasure afforded to a “homemaker” in 1957 is one last farewell to her shamed sweetheart as his train passes, the lavender scarf swaddled over her head acting as the sole reminder of their fleeting moment of happiness.
Perfectly replicating Technicolor film processing, every image in Far From Heaven is a vista, sporting deep greens and fiery autumnal leaves, traveling by way of fluid crane shot from the tops of the trees to the front porches of stunning colonial homes. Body language and dialogue befit the period as well, but distinctions are made between the affectations of polite discussion and the reality that seeps out behind closed doors, saving bitter words and uninhibited passion for the shadows of back alley bars and the isolation of the forest.
The two divergent worlds rarely intermingle, overlapping only for a drunken outburst or contemptuous stare, involuntarily exposing the tension bubbling beneath the surface. Cathy and Raymond briefly venture beyond this invisible barrier, finding companionship outside of the restrictions of class, race and marital vow. Todd Haynes suggests that even their failed efforts at subversion are authentic in a society dictated by fear and ignorance, using their flirtation as a harbinger of the Civil Rights Movement and a weapon against the mystique of the “American Dream.”
Far From Heaven (Focus Features, 2002)
Written and Directed by Todd Haynes
Photographed by Edward Lachman