Candy-Colored Darkness

1950s melodrama meets the 21st century in Far From Heaven

The 1950s was a strange time to be alive, although not many people seem to have realized it at the time. Checking in on the era through the electronic filters of our TV sets and movie screens, Eisenhower's America now seems like a positively surreal place, an alien planet of endless suburbs populated by unnaturally tidy and weirdly depthless pod people. Even the family dogs on those '50s sitcoms seem more upbeat, better groomed, less morally ambivalent than the canines of today.Just under that wholesome, self-assured and immaculately manicured surface, though, lay something darker and more complicated.

For a real sense of this, one need only take a gander at classic Hollywood films like Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, or virtually anything else produced in the 1950s by director Douglas Sirk. Although these movies were generally dismissed in their day as mere "women's pictures," Sirk's magnificent melodramas have been undergoing a critical re-evaluation over the past few decades, and are now almost universally hailed as subtle, sophisticated critiques of the happy nuclear families of yesteryear.

Sirk's movies aren't flashy or stylish in the strobing, stuttering, pumped-up way we associate with today's films, but you won't find a director with a more highly developed visual sense. Sirk was a German émigré, and you'll frequently find elegantly expressionistic flourishes in his movies that eschew reality in favor of visually amplifying the sheer emotion or psychology of a scene. Sirk's movies were once blasted as baroque and pointless, but the director's more recent wave of admirers stress that the gorgeous but blatantly unrealistic look of these films is itself a pointed comment on the social milieu it depicts.

The world suddenly seems filled with Douglas Sirk devotees. The late, great Ranier Werner Fassbinder was a fan, of course, as are many of today's most influential filmmakers. Pedro Almodovar's recent melodramas All About My Mother and Talk to Her are nothing if not mutated Sirk, while French auteur Francois Ozon has openly acknowledged Sirk as the primary influence behind the gloriously artificial look of Eight Women.

The apex of this movement, without a doubt, is Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, a loving and exquisitely crafted homage that might very well be thought of as the last word on Sirk. It's certainly the best film Douglas Sirk never made.

Haynes is a filmmaker with a wildly eclectic and ambitious body of work of his own. His iconoclastic movies are all over the map, from the postmodern puppet show of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, to the complicated fusion of Jean Genet, docudrama and B-movie sci-fi that is Poison, to the glam-rock mish-mash of Velvet Goldmine. All these films include flashes of brilliance but, along with his dazzling black comedy Safe, Far From Heaven is Haynes' masterpiece.

It's tempting to look at Far From Heaven as a spoof, but that's not really what's going on here at all. Haynes isn't interested in poking fun at the classic form of melodrama so much as he wants to honor it and then massage it into some extended version of itself, one capable of addressing uniquely modern concerns.

Haynes sets his movie in white suburban America circa 1957, an easy target if ever there was one. It's a time and place with rigidly observed codes and modes of behavior that leave little room for deviance, and that potentially set everyone up for a fall. It's a time and place where everybody wore hats, where children addressed their fathers as "Sir," and people actually said things like "Shucks" and "Jeepers."

The heroine of the tale is Cathy Whitaker (beautifully played by Julianne Moore), a model housewife whose marriage to local businessman Frank (Dennis Quaid) turns out to be not nearly as perfect as she imagined. In true tearjerker fashion, as Cathy's marriage begins to crumble, so goes the rest of her world.

Style reigns supreme in this movie, with everything being not only drop-dead gorgeous but also an absolutely meticulous re-creation of Sirk's singular aesthetic. Every frame is filled with carefully color-coded fetish objects, from the elaborate dresses on the upper middle class housewives, to the drapes and wallpaper behind them, to the unnaturally vivid autumn leaves outside their windows, to the skin tone of the black maid who scuttles about in the background. Haynes transforms the movie into a designer's dream, then emulates the technicolor look of the films of the era perfectly, saturating the hues of Far From Heaven with an intensity that borders on the psychedelic.

From the moment Elmer Bernstein's music kicks in and the camera first floats down from its God-like perch over the small suburban community of Hartford, Conn., Far From Heaven seems like it could have dropped in fully formed from 1957. The clothes are right, the cars are right, the colors are more than right. Even the ornately flowery lettering of the opening titles is dead on.

Haynes' movie is clearly a film buff's dream, but you don't have to be a snooty cinephile to appreciate Far From Heaven. The movie is formally perfect, but it's no mere exercise in style. As with all classic melodramas, there's a real story here, and even its most over-the-top cliches are so juicy we can't help finding ourselves engaged by them. Haynes puts the movie's formidable style to work, using it to make connections between what was going on in America in the middle of the last century (but couldn't always be talked about) and what's happening here and now.

It takes a while to figure out what the movie's up to, but it all starts making perfect sense after about 20 minutes, in the first of a trio of pivotal scenes that brilliantly break through the film's glossy layers of artifice and alert us to the realer-than-real reality within. In the first scene, in which we learn that Cathy's square-shouldered, all-American he-man husband secretly desires other men, we follow him into a clandestine gay underworld that makes for one of the most poignant and perfectly realized moments in any movie in years.

Say what you will about Sirk providing veiled social commentary by choosing Rock Hudson, a closeted gay man, as his frequent leading man — but you won't find a sequence this resonant or truthful in many '50s films. Or in many contemporary films either. The scene jumps out at us, making sure we understand that these characters are considerably more than kitsch stereotypes, and bringing all of the movie's other disparate elements into focus. Far from Heaven can be a lot of fun, but it knows when to be serious too.

The second pivotal scene involves Moore's character and the black gardener for whom she finds herself falling (a situation that seems to cause the town gossips even more consternation than hubby's homosexuality — which is viewed as some sort of curable, albeit devastating, disease). The couple run into one another at an art opening, where all the white people stare at them, followed by a visit to an all-black restaurant, where all the black customers stare at them. The sequence feels both heart-wrenchingly authentic and deliberately stilted, like a scene out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the townsfolk, who are really alien imposters, catch sight of real humans in their midst.

The third and final pivotal scene depicts the total breakdown of one of the movie's main characters, and it's probably the most powerful and important moment of the lot, when all of the movie's cartoonish tendencies explode into pure psychodrama. Saying more would give away a few too many of the film's secrets, so we'll leave those pleasures for your eventual discovery.

Haynes isn't always completely successful with the film's treatment of its social and cultural themes — racism and homophobia are often equated in ways that are either overly convenient or simply heavy-handed, and some of the scenes of Frank "fighting" his homosexuality verge on camp. Still, it's remarkable to see that discreet harmfulness of the bourgeoisie, always implicit in Douglas Sirk's movies, suddenly modernized, made whole and held up to the light in a way that would never have been possible back in 1957. And done so in such a stylish, entertaining and non-condescending manner, to boot.

It's all summed up in a question posed at one point by Moore's socially unacceptable, black boyfriend, who asks, "Is it possible that one couple could reach out for one fleeting instant and see beyond the surface, beyond the color of things?"

Far From Heaven's masterstroke is showing us exactly how intoxicating the color of things can be. The movie seduces us with a blindingly beautiful, multicolored surface, reveals the darkness within, and then, finally, takes us by the hand and shows us what lies beyond.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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