Why bother with a movie about a girly-swirly Connecticut housewife, circa 1957? Because Far From Heaven is a classic of its kind. Because Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid give the performances of their careers. And because writer-director Todd Haynes, the indie rebel who guided Moore through the stunning 1995 AIDS parable Safe, raises the chick flick to the level of art. I should mention that Far From Heaven is also riveting, rapturous fun. Talk about movie heaven — this is it.
Haynes treats the 1950s, as he should, like an exotic parallel universe. Moore’s Cathy Whitaker, coiffed and costumed like a lacquered doll, is the perfect wife to Magnatech TV exec Frank (Quaid) and the perfect mom to their two kids. Wait till you see her in apron and high heels, then giggling with the girls over daiquiris about husbands who want sex more than once a week and being gushed over in the local rag as “a woman as devoted to her family as she is kind to Negroes.” Laugh? How can you not?
But Haynes isn’t aiming for a campfest. As shadows fall over Cathy’s ideal life, the laughs stick in your throat. Frank starts cruising men. When Cathy catches him, fly unzipped, kissing a guy at the office, Frank goes to a shrink for a “cure” that doesn’t take. Cathy is afraid to tell even her best friend, Eleanor (a deliciously funny Patricia Clarkson). Only Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), the handsome gardener, gets Cathy to let down her guard. And since he is black, more scandal thunders into her life.
Now a social outcast, Cathy is rocked from complacency into a rude awareness of her lack of choices as a woman. Get out an Oscar for Moore. She digs so deep into this role that actress and character breathe as one. Quaid, far from the heroics of The Rookie, is a revelation, finding the heat in Frank’s long-buried identity and the casual cruelty that lays waste to his wife.
It’s Raymond, deftly underplayed by Haysbert (the prez on 24), who boldly takes Cathy for a drink and a dance at a “colored” restaurant. His tenderness floors her. But neither is welcome in the other’s world. Cathy had always been polite but distant to her black maid, Sybil (Viola Davis). Realizing her own bias sets Cathy adrift, like the lilac chiffon scarf that sails off her head in the wind. Raymond finds it. “I had a feeling it might be yours,” he says. “The color. Just seemed right.”
Haynes places great significance on color and on the codes and symbols that help define character. In that way, he is a true disciple of the great German director Douglas Sirk, who made his mark in Hollywood with a popular series of 1950s women’s pictures (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life) that subversively attacked middle-class conformity. Sirk worked with subtext and a flamboyant visual style of color, light and shadow to articulate forbidden feelings in ways dialogue could not.
Haynes borrows most from Sirk’s 1955 weepie All That Heaven Allows, starring Jane Wyman as a widow who is frozen out socially when she falls for a young gardener (Rock Hudson). In Far From Heaven, Ed Lachman — in a glorious demonstration of all that cinematography can be — floods the screen with color. The hyper-reality extends to the score, by eighty-year-old Elmer Bernstein, which sweeps the film up on waves of ravishing romance.
If Haynes had stopped there, Far From Heaven would merely be a copycat triumph. Instead, he reinvents the genre, letting the passions that lay buried in Sirk’s films explode onscreen. Haynes and producer Christine Vachon (cheered by The New York Times as “godmother to the politically committed film”) aren’t into nostagia. Their imitation of life from half a century ago holds up a cracked mirror to the here and now. Fears about race, sexuality, feminism — craftily coded in packaging that sells religion, flag and family — are hardly alien to George W.’s America. Haynes makes you drunk on movies again, on raw emotion delivered without the cushion of irony. There are bigger, splashier films this year, but none cuts a straighter path to the heart.