Cathy Withaker has it all: a great big house in the Connecticut suburbs, a successful husband, adorable kids, nice friends to invite for soirées and benefits… But when she finds herself growing closer to Raymond Deagan, the family’s Black gardener, she realises that the world around her can be a cold and mean place. Bringing further confusion into her life is the revelation by her husband that he’s attracted to men; you’d think they would bond over their common flirting with unconventional relationships, but they each contribute in alienating the other for his feelings.
From the very start, Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas is a real treat. The autumn leaves in gorgeous Technicolor, the swooning score by Elmer Bernstein, the lavish titles… And when Julianne Moore’s upper-middle-class housewife enters the picture, the attention to detail is even more impressive. It’s one thing to fill each frame with period cars, clothes and hairstyles, but here even the camera movements and the delivery and body language of the actors are old fashioned! Moore is superb as always, but Dennis Quaid also nails the ’50s tone down as her fast-talking husband.
So far so good, but there’s one thing that slightly bothered me about “Far From Heaven”: what’s the purpose, beside a brilliant exercise in style? I can see Haynes throwing a few curve balls, overtly addressing issues hush-hush in Sirk’s time like homosexuality and interracial relationships, but the handling remains out-of-time: doctors conduct treatments to “restore heterosexuality”, and the whole town literally frowns upon a white woman being friendly to a “Negro”. The film can’t possibly think it’s daringly revealing that intolerance was rampant behind the polished exteriors of 1950s suburbia, right?
Some people seem to take the film as a parody, laughing out loud at every retro flourish, but I doubt Haynes’ intent is this juvenile. Then what is it? In an interview with EW, Haynes explains that his film “uses the filmmaking style of the ‘50s to affect on an emotional level.” That sounds just dandy but despite strong chemistry between Moore and Dennis Haysbert (who plays the charismatic and wise African-American gardener), the stunning but overwhelming art direction creates a distance between the story and the audience that makes emotional involvement difficult. I admire the heck out of “Far From Heaven”, I just wish I could embrace it more heartily.