Far From Heaven (2002)

D: Todd Haynes
S: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid

Self-conscious cinematic reconstruction of the 1950s melodrama as envisioned by Douglas Sirk. If that sentence has no meaning for you, then the film probably won't either. Though Far From Heaven nominally offers a standard issue soap opera plot and boasts of the lush colours, luxuriant scoring, and crisp, precise dialogue of the kind of film which eventually gave way to generations of television entertainments, the mug-of-tea-and-warm-slippers brigade may find themselves taken aback by Tod Haynes thoughtful study of the genre's formal and thematic boundaries.

The film tells the story of a well-to-do housewife (Julianne Moore) in late 1950s Connecticut who finds her world turned upside down by two challenges to the status quo which force her to reevaluate its merits. In the first instance her successful businessman husband (Dennis Quaid) goes where Rock Hudson went only in the deep structure as he struggles with his sexual identity. The film begins with his arrest for loitering which tells the audience more than it does to Moore, setting in motion the chain of disruptions upon which the narrative is constructed. Interestingly, it is his struggle to remain in the closet which creates most of the tension, a conceit as much a satirical deconstruction of the queer counter-reading of the Sirk films as it is a nice wrinkle in the script. The second and ultimately more narratively central note of social discord has Moore herself becoming a problem for her peers when her tentative and altogether respectful relationship with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert, essentially reprising the role played, ironically, by Hudson in All that Heaven Allows) seems first to everyone else and then consciously to herself to be something more than being "kind to Negroes".

From its self-conscious title to its oh-so deliberate colour scheme and even its title design, Far From Heaven invites closer study. Like the more recent update of the basic elements of such films in American Beauty, the film sets surface and substance in opposition with one another. It does this not merely in story terms, where the placid veneer of 1950s conservatism is undermined by characterisation and plot, but also cinematically. The film demands intellectual deconstruction from an audience armed with generic foreknowledge of the visual conceits upon which the melodrama is usually structured. Without playing the surrealist games of Sam Mendes' version of the same thing, it succeeds in penetrating the subconscious and sub-textual systems with which the audience's vision of the subject matter is constructed.

If all of this is just film school malarkey to you, then you are cordially invited to watch Far From Heaven as straight soap. The film does allow the development of character and narrative on a level which may permit some pleasure, but there is an aloofness to it which refuses genuine emotional empathy with the characters. The performances are quite strong. Moore (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) holds the centre very easily in a subtle characterisation which develops as it goes. She is superbly matched by Haysbert, who is equally quietly effective. Quaid plays a character with more expressive dimensions, and plays it very well. Yet the very fact that we are made aware that the film is out to deconstruct social norms instead of this being something we find out as we go means that it is difficult to approach the film as straight narrative or to involve ourselves with these characters on an unreconstructed, non-ironic plane. The film yields less entertainment on this level than the average soap opera. Its foregrounded concerns with race, sexuality, and the collapse of the family seem too pointed for a workaday weepie. All of this merely signals that there is more going on than would seem obvious on the surface.

It is this very symbiosis between form and content which makes Far From Heaven such a worthwhile experience. It sounds like film snob stuff, I'll grant you, but the film really needs to be seen and thought of in a larger context. It even gives you all of the information you need if you just look for it. Nothing passes without notice, with each element of plot or visual design feeding into the behaviour of the characters in ways which signal the interrelationships between them. Elmer Bernstein's score, production design by Mark Friedberg, art direction by Peter Rogness, costumes by Sandy Powell, even the camera movements with cinematographer Edward Lachman; all are immaculately styled with crisp, precise edges that throw the visual and narrative worlds into pointed relief. The audience simply has to pay attention to the delicacy with which it has all been constructed and assembled. Deconstruction is easy, but Haynes has not contented himself with simply breaking down these elements and leaving them disconnected and robbed of context. He does not shy away from meaningful storytelling, or meaningful filmmaking; and, indeed, the two depend on one another for effect. In reconstructing the melodrama, the film exposes its conventions and subjects them to analysis by both the filmmaker and audience. In some ways the project of the film resembles that of the much-praised Pleasantville, but Far From Heaven is a more subtle and intricate work of cinematic art.

Yes, you say, this most definitely sounds like a film school response from a bloated academic ego. Fair enough, but unless you come at it from this angle, the film is likely to bore you. If that is the case, don't say you weren't warned. Prejudices and suppositions aside, Far From Heaven is well worth seeing if you do approach it with the appropriate attitude.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.