FAR FROM HEAVEN
Starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid
Written and directed by Todd Haynes
Opens Friday, November 29
"The best melodramas are the ones where people, by just taking the tiniest steps toward what they want, end up hurting everyone around them."
If what Todd Haynes says is true, then his new film is a melodrama of the first order. Far From Heaven is Hayness sumptuous homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, the German émigré who directed a series of "womens pictures" for Universal in the 50s. Like Sirks 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows (one of Hayness favourite movies), Far From Heaven is a fascinating social critique that reveals the desperation beneath the cheery façade of middle-class American life. Yet its also a boldly emotional tearjerker whose heightened sense of artifice makes the fate of the characters no less devastating.
In the sort of role that Sirk would have given to Jane Wyman, Haynes cast Julianne Moore, who starred in his superb 1995 drama Safe. Although Cathy Whitaker is a warmer, richer character than Safes pitiful Carol, Moores character in Far From Heaven is another prisoner of the suburbs. It is 1957 and she lives a carefully ordered existence in Connecticut with her TV-salesman husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), and two rosy-cheeked children. However, Franks furtive visits to strange bars frequented by men in ascots, and Cathys friendship with Raymond (Dennis Haybert), a noble black gardener, set the neighbourhood gossips tittering.
Although Sirk devotees will note the nods to All That Heaven Allows, Theres Always Tomorrow and Imitation of Life and at one point, Haynes even deploys a rear-projection plate Sirk used in Written on the Wind the film is more than the sum of its references.
"I never wanted it to rely too heavily on its influences, but to commit to them in a fresh way and see how they could come back to life," says Haynes in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Oregon.
And despite the films retro setting, Far From Heaven raises volatile questions about race, class and gender, even by todays standards. Franks attempts to rid himself of his desires anticipate the "conversion therapy" tactics of today, and Cathys dance scene with Raymond points out the rarity of interracial passions in American cinema. In many ways, Haynes sees his film as a provocation to notions about how far weve come since the 50s.
"This is a fucking half-century ago yet these gut-level feelings about race, sexuality and the status of women have not transformed in a lot of the ways people wouldve liked them to."
What may surprise modern viewers is how Far From Heaven can deal with these issues in such a blatantly soap-operatic fashion. Thats a testament to the enduring power of the melodrama, despite the decline of interest in the form since Sirks day.
"Usually, when films refer to other films these days, they refer to films that are very much in the popular canon, like The Godfather or suspense thrillers," he says. "Whats really funny about having melodrama as the reference point is that its absolutely the most outmoded genre. When I think back on what we attempted to do, its almost like that I have some kind of after-fear: Oh my God, what were we thinking? But you just put your head in the sand and not think too much about how hard it is to pull off."
Yet Far From Heaven is a triumph on all counts, from Elmer Bernsteins swoony yet sabre-toothed score to the precise work of the cast. Moore won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and seems a likely Oscar contender, but the films boldest performance comes from Quaid.
"People dont think of him as a real actors actor," says Haynes. "Hes more like this movie star whos sexy and handsome and everyone likes him. But he really fucking transformed for this role. He had just shot The Rookie right before we started our shoot and when I saw it, I almost didnt recognize him hes almost a completely different physical being."
Far From Heaven has also attracted honours for Ed Lachman, whose lush cinematography perfectly suits Hayness dark fantasy of American mores.
"The predominant mode of operation of filmmaking today is based on a contemporary idea of naturalism," says Haynes, "which, of course, is always changing. Theres a logic in the decision making about how to construct reality if theres light coming through the window, itll hit her on the side of the face and when we do the reverse angle, the light should hit her on the same side, etc.
"I told Ed to forget about that. I wanted to rethink all the things we take for granted and just let it be this expressionistic visual experience thats telling you as much at that level as any of the dialogue or movement."
For Haynes, the goal was clear. "I didnt want to look back on Sirks films and feel that they were bolder than we were."