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Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes) 2002


    Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ brilliant tribute to Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, is one of the very best films I’ve seen this year. Reteaming Haynes with the superb actress Julianne Moore for the first time since their 1995 collaboration Safe, the film exhilarates in the same way that Safe did, by toeing the thin line between humorous irony and poignant emotion. Unlike Safe though, which never really declared an allegiance to either, Heaven uses ironic jokes and witty dialogue in its first half to close the rift between modern audiences and the film’s 1950s setting and before Haynes largely reduces his humorous touches as the drama becomes increasingly intense. The director lulls us into a position where we might feel a little superior to, but not emotionally detached from, his characters and then goes on to present a series of melodramatic twists (many taken almost directly from Sirk’s Heaven) that confound our expectations by actually making us feel something genuine. We come to understand the people in this film’s exquisitely detailed world on their terms instead of ours. By the time our opinion of Cathy Whitaker, Moore’s blonde Connecticut housewife, matters to the film’s emotional success, we’ve been made fully aware of her limitations as a thinker and a resident of her community, and that allows us to better understand the decisions that she makes. When Cathy says exasperatedly, “I don’t understand,” we understand that she really doesn’t and that lack of understanding makes her profoundly human.


    The structure of the script can hardly be faulted since it owes so much to Sirk’s film. It elegantly introduces us to its cast, and just when it seems Cathy lives in some sort of idyllic version of the world, it begins showing its true colors. No sooner than Cathy says, “I don’t think I ever wanted anything…” to a newspaper reporter, she spots the man whose introduction will dramatically alter her life. The script’s addition of a husband for Cathy (Jane Wyman’s protagonist in All that Heaven Allows was a widow) gives us a yardstick with which to judge how great Cathy’s ultimate sacrifice is, since her husband is faced with a crisis that’s quite similar. Moore’s fantastic performance only compliments the writing when endearing us to her character. She disappears completely into her role, and before long we don’t see the actress when we look at her on the screen. Because of her conviction, we understand both the gargantuan acts of transgression that Cathy is making when she falls in love with a black man and her inability to escape from the oppression that surrounds her in this seemingly beautiful environment.  The supporting cast is equally fine, without a single bad line reading in the film. Technically, the film is irreproachable. Haynes adopts the cinematography and elaborate art direction of Sirk’s film so that it expressionistically reflects the emotional mood of his characters, but then uses his own editing rhythms and camera placement so that the end result never feels like a carbon copy, though one might argue that these cinematic differences make it a bit of a botched homage. Still, when the camera launches into a crane shot and Elmer Bernstein’s magisterial score swells, Haynes’ sheer technique bowls us over. Instead of focusing on the class politics the caused the drama in Sirk’s film, Haynes examines the sexual and racial hang-ups that lurked beneath the attractive veneer of ‘50s life, and since time has created a distance between the 1950s and us the film spins an air of anti-nostalgia that Sirk’s film couldn’t possibly create. The most frightening thing we realize while watching Far From Heaven is that underneath all of the stylization that Haynes employs, little has fundamentally changed today, and when that happens any of the ironic distance that we felt early on disintegrates completely.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman