Magnificent Oppression: Far From Heaven

Several prominent mainstream critics have heralded the new Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven as a masterpiece. In Haynes’ adopted hometown Portland, The Oregonian praises Far From Heaven as nothing less than “the first great American drama of the new century.” Would that such claims held water. Certainly the movie signals an advance over the era when Haynes wrote and directed the revolting human spittoon sequence in 1991’s aptly named Poison.

Set in 1957, Far From Heaven emulates the affluent trappings of velvet-gloved suburbia through a prism of Douglas Sirk melodramas. Haynes cites Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows as a “template” for his own film. What forms, thus, is a mixture as strained and garnished as the cocktails Haynes’ characters continually swill. He fuses 1950s conventions (the children exclaim “Shucks, Pop!”) with post-postmodern sensibility, and the result—should this take anyone by surprise—is a mutation of camp. The camera angles, costumes, and colors of autumn all beguile, but the stilted mannerisms Haynes insists upon nearly dehydrate the picture.

The ravers rallying ‘round this movie are spot-on accurate about one thing: Julianne Moore is devastating. A gifted actress who’s been coasting through slime in recent years, Moore delivers one of her richest performances to date. As Cathleen Whitaker, a high society wife and mother who discovers her husband is gay, Moore transcends the intentionally leaden dialogue and imbues this woman with an exquisitely wrought sense of tragedy. When we see her among a circle of shallow acquaintances, Cathleen has a smile that turns upward into a frown; the gesture might emblem the wrong direction of her hemmed in life. She has the unwavering charm of someone practiced at being untrue to herself.

As her hubby’s therapy sessions (designed to “restore” him to a nice, normal healthy state of heterosexuality) spiral his behavior into ever more erratic modes, Cathleen develops a friendship with her African-American gardener—an innocent alliance that yields the usual unintended agonies in Racist America. Dennis Haysbert plays the gardener Raymond; he has two scenes with Moore that achieve an unknotted quality this movie could have used more of. First, at an art exhibit they stand transfixed by a Miró as he muses on the link between abstract and religious painting, and then later, Raymond, still addressing Cathleen by her surname, takes her to an all-black juke joint and she says: “Mrs. Whitaker sounds so formal. Would you… [long pause] …ask me to dance?”

Moments are delicately tuned as these are rare. Far From Heaven primarily centers on Haynes’ fetish for ‘50s repression. He stages scene after scene of villagers so frozen in apoplectic hate (the story takes place in Hartford, Connecticut) that the extras cast as townspeople might have been imported herky jerky from an old Frankenstein movie. And after a while the suspicion crept over me that Haynes relishes the codified rituals of pre-Stonewall gay men. The tracking shots of Dennis Quaid in pursuit of secretive pleasure suggest a lament not so much for what Quaid’s character had to go through as for the absence of those very same elaborate courtships among subsequent generations. The writer-director seems to say that the rewards were greater when the stakes were higher, that the constrictions of the closet held a beneficial thrill that the Queer as Folk crowd will never know. That at least, after two hours of stylized theatrics, leaves us something to debate. — NPT

November 22, 2002