"Far From Heaven" is Todd Haynes" work of art It sounded like a mere gimmick. Writer/director Todd Haynes sets out to create a "50s style melodrama, a film that would look, sound and play like the work of legendary 1950s director Douglas Sirk, maker of "women"s pictures" like Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows.
Julianne Moore stars in Todd Haynes" "Far From Heaven."
Far From Heaven is much more than a cheeky filmmaking exercise. As a recreation of "50s melodrama, it is certainly successful, but the movie works on other levels as well, delivering a moving tale of pain, loving and longing, along with a powerful look at everyday bigotry. Todd Haynes has made a remarkable work of art. Haynes first drew attention in the "80s for his short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, where he traced the life of the gifted singer all the way to her death from anorexia nervosa, using Barbie dolls as "actors." His first feature-length movie, the festival circuit hit Poison, premiered in 1991, followed by Safe, which brought him together with Far From Heaven star Julianne Moore. His last film was Velvet Goldmine, a sprawling look at the glam-rock days. Far From Heaven takes place in "50s Hartford, Conn., where Cathy (Moore) and Frank (Dennis Quaid) Whitley appear to be living the perfect life. Perfect, that is, until she catches him in the arms of another man and then finds her white self building a friendship with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), the handsome new black gardener. At the press screening, I started off laughing at the displays of outrage over homosexuality in general and the notion of a white woman and a black man having a social relationship. Those people, I thought, with their ridiculous clothes and stilted patterns of speech, are just examples of an era that, thankfully, is long gone. But as the story progressed and I adjusted to the fashions and the patter, my reaction changed. There was very little difference, I soon realized, between what they believed then and what is believed by far too many right now. Memories of bigotry, both observed and experienced, swirled through my head. "So," I asked Haynes during a phone interview, "was my reaction what you were shooting for?" Haynes agreed with a laugh, then elaborated. "That"s really what I hope people walk away with. And what"s interesting to me is that some of what you experienced, what you just said, and the change of thought, are things that we were in control of, but a lot of the stuff the film doesn"t even really do for you, and I don"t quite even know how it happened." He continued, "There"s nothing really in the film that says, "Oh, these things are still happening today." It sticks completely to its own stylistic language and vernacular, and even when that shift happens from laughing or being a little more removed from it and then being engrossed in it, again, there"s really very little the film actually does. It doesn"t have a stylistic change of tone except that the real themes of the film begin to emerge as they usually do in movies at least an eighth of the way into them. "You start to sense that things are actually going to happen here that are different than what the film begins with; things are going to emerge and the plot is going to thicken. But to a large degree the terminology and the style and the fact that everything comes from movies, all of the dialogue and all of the references are kind of a reconfiguration of the elements that come directly out of Hollywood movies, obviously with a focus on women"s films from this time." He was on a roll, so I shut up and listened to him elaborate. "We just applied all of our attentions to being extremely sincere, like none of us were ever above the material, you know, our treatment of it. And I think that"s true for the actors and true for the creative departments that worked on the film. When you hear how the little boy talks to his mom or you hear, "David, while you"re up, why don"t you turn on the set for your old man?" "Sure, Pop!" and stuff like that, it does sound funny. But quite a ways into the film the dramatic tensions are completely revealed, and that"s when people aren"t laughing anymore, but the same exact sort of dialogue is happening and the kids are still talking like kids from that time." "So," I said, "instead of the standard movie manipulation, everything here hinges on the audience appraising what they see on their own and, ideally, coming to a certain conclusion." "Yeah," Haynes replied, "for the most part. A beautiful thing about movies is when all the great things happen because the audience makes it happen, not that the movie does it for you." Prior to its theatrical release, Far From Heaven traveled the festival circuit, where it received the most glowing reviews of any film so far this year. Haynes was struck by the fact that a large number of mainstream critics have been just as effusive in their praise as writers in the alternative press. The idea for the movie came from Haynes" desire to take audiences in a different direction than that of most contemporary cinema. "What I wanted to do was look at the films of the "50s and look at what, in many ways, is a beautifully limited language," he explained. "I wanted to embrace that language, with its limitations, in such a way that would actually, maybe, reendow something like one character cursing at somebody else once in a movie with a new impact - actually making that a disturbing moment." It works. At one point in the film, Frank shouts an obscene word that never would have been allowed in a "50s film. The scene is positively shocking and Haynes is proud of the effect. "To me, that is a feat, I have to say, because of today"s culture, which just drains you of feeling - you"ve been numbed out by constant profanity and violence and explosions and movies getting bigger and louder and more aggressive and, ultimately, there"s no place to go when you"ve reached that limit. You can only go backwards, you can only kind of restrain the range of options so that all of a sudden those things take on real meaning again and you can feel them in your gut. So to do that was never like, "Oh, I made a mistake and put something in the film that wasn"t in the "50s." I just wanted to use the style and a lot of the narrative constraints from the "50s, but to tell a story with the knowledge that we have today and to ask how far we have actually come."