Far From Heaven (review)

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Isn’t It Ironic?

(Best of 2002)

There are film fans, and then there are film fans. There are the casual moviegoers who head out to the multiplex on the weekend because it’s something to do and they like the distraction from everyday life that watching Vin Diesel beat the crap out of someone provides. And then there are the true fanatics, the religious adherents, the ones for whom a trip to the movies is a pilgrimage; for those people, sitting through a bad movie in which Vin Diesel beats the crap out of someone is still better than doing almost anything else, and not even overpriced concessions and inconsiderate audiences can truly lessen the experience.

I’m sure you don’t need to be told that I’m in the latter group. If you’re with me — if you thrill to the lights going down even for some stupid romantic comedy you know is gonna suck on toast, if the flickering screen fills you with an ecstatic awe, if your DVD collection is expanding with a kind of hopeless optimism that you’ll actually get to watch them all one of these days — then you cannot miss Far from Heaven, because it is Todd Haynes worshipping at the altar of movies with a fervent passion that will infect you. Infect you even more than you already are, that is.

With its lush Technicolor palette of autumn hues and lavish Elmer Bernstein score and slightly stylized acting and crisp costumes of crinoline and taffeta and gray flannel, Far from Heaven is a note-perfect pastiche of early studio melodramas, particularly of the 1950s, which was Haynes’s intention, to pay tribute to films like Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows. Even if you’re not a fan of those kinds of films — though honestly, aren’t true believers fans of every kind of film? — I doubt you couldn’t help but see the love imbued into this production. And it’s a love of film — the way movies looked and felt and made audiences feel. Far from Heaven is in the same experimental genus as Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho from a few years back, but it’s really much closer in its intent, in its daring, and in its success to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Far from Heaven is damn fine drama in its own right, just as Raiders is damn fine adventure, but it’s the unshakeable love of a damn fine moviegoing experience that gives both films their real meaning.

Far from Heaven‘s story is simple, the kind of cutting, interpersonal drama the “women’s” films of the 50s were full of: Domestic goddess Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore: The Shipping News, World Traveler) finds her life falling apart when her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid: The Rookie, Traffic), comes out of a closet as a homosexual and in her grief, she turns for friendship to her new handsome black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert: Random Hearts, The Thirteenth Floor), which sets tongues in well-off Hartford, Connecticut a-waggin’. There’s no “Have you heard Frank’s light in the loafers?” gossip, because men were allowed their privacy and allowed to pursue their personal fulfillment even if it was considered sick and antisocial. No, it’s “Did you see Cathy with that Negro?” because while she strives to protect Frank’s reputation as a husband, father, and pillar of the business community, there’s no one to protect her… except maybe that Negro himself, and that simply wasn’t done.

Frank’s homosexuality is dealt with more baldly than a film of the 50s could have gotten away with, but Far from Heaven is circumspect by today’s standards, the subject handled almost entirely through smoldering glances and innuendo. And that’s just perfect — this isn’t a movie about the 50s from a millennial perspective, it’s a movie about the 50s from as near a 50s perspective as you can get, with just a bit of filtering through modern eyes. We’d look at the kind of movies that inspired Far from Heaven with a certain smirking irony today, and some of the drama might get lost in unconscious poking fun at the Leave It to Beaver/Father Knows Best mentality — we’ve been trained to see the entire postwar period up until the Beatles through a jaundiced eye. But by taking this old-fashioned story and telling it in an old-fashioned way, Haynes has de-ironized it for us, as if to say: “Look, let’s just take all that buttoned-down, prim, conservative 50s stuff as a given, and let’s move past it. Here are some people dealing with that buttoned-down, prim, conservative 50s stuff in the only ways they knew how.”

So now, the fact that Frank is in advertising (all professional men were in advertising in the 50s) is still ironic, of course — advertising is about selling, and the 50s were about selling an impossible familial and community ideal. But here we see the Whitakers’ facing the reality of the crumbling of that impossible ideal with far more sympathy than we today could have if this were a movie actually from the 50s. Now, the fact that the Whitakers’ cocktail party guests, discussing racism and the Negro Problem, could say that Hartford could never have the South’s troubles because there are no Negros in Hartford while accepting drinks from a black domestic servant is still ironic, of course. But here we’re not looking to snicker at whitey’s cluelessness — we’re here to see the cluelessness in all its misguided sincerity from the point of view of Cathy, who believes herself progressive and a friend of the Negro, and she is, for her time, for all her own misguided insincerity. It’s as if Haynes had transported not only our bodies but our minds back to the 50s. The man’s a friggin’ genius.

My god, but Hollywood does try to beat that unconditional love out of us true believers, doesn’t it? Bad scripts, indifferent direction, terrible actors — it’s hard to accept that many of the people who make movies don’t seem to even like movies, never mind love them the way we do. But then along comes a film like Far from Heaven — Haynes is, of course, far from Hollywood — that re-energizes you and renews your faith. I can get through a dozen movies in which Vin Diesel beats the crap out of someone after this.

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