Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#250. Far From Heaven (2002)

Directed By: Todd Haynes

Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert

Tag line: "It's Time To Stop Hiding From The Truth"

Trivia:  Julianne Moore was pregnant throughout the filming of this movie.

Far From Heaven derives its look and feel from the movies of director Douglas Sirk, considered by many to be the master of Hollywood melodrama in the 1950’s. With Far From Heaven, director Todd Haynes wanted to match both the mood and style of a Sirk film while at the same time updating the story for a more modern audience. Where Sirk concerned himself with social issues prevalent to the 1950’s (romance across societal classes, alcoholism, racial prejudice), Far From Heaven delves into closeted homosexuality and inter-racial relationships, topics Sirk could never have tackled in his day.

The story takes place in the 1950's. Kathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), are an upper-middle class couple with two small children who live in a beautiful, New England suburb. By all appearances, they're the perfect family, but Haynes, like Sirk before him, wastes little time in pointing out that appearances can be deceiving. One night, Kathy decides to surprise Frank, who’s working late, by driving his dinner down to him. As Kathy opens the door to Frank’s office, she finds him in the arms of another man. Horrified, Kathy runs from the building, and when Frank returns home later that night, the two agree that he must seek counseling for his ‘illness’ (Far From Heaven treats homosexuality exactly as it would have been treated in the 1950’s – as a disease).

In conjuncture with Frank's homosexuality, Far From Heaven also focuses on the relationship that develops between Kathy and the family's African American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Despite the societal “norms” of the time, which frowned upon the “mixture” of races, Kathy and Raymond find that they genuinely enjoy each others company, and go out of their way to spend time together. While attending a modern art show one afternoon, Kathy spots Raymond among the patrons, and the two decide to walk together, sharing their opinions of the artwork on display. It's all very innocent, yet their interaction causes discomfort among the other art patrons, who quietly object to this inter-racial friendship. Kathy’s neighbor and best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), tries to warn Kathy that she’s causing a scandal, but Kathy simply shrugs it off. Unfortunately, she will learn the hard way that even an innocent friendship can have far-reaching effects on her standing in the community.

Matching Douglas Sirk’s expressionistic style was no easy task, yet Haynes and his crew went to great lengths to do just that. The vibrant colors of Far From Heaven are very similar to those employed by Sirk, and the film’s various set pieces are noticeably artificial, thus tearing down the “illusion” of reality in this stoic, cold society. The camera movements are also very expressionistic; as Kathy runs from the building after discovering Frank with a man, the camera follows her, shooting from above yet tilted at strong angles, as if to convey Kathy’s ‘perfect’ world has just been thrown into chaos.

I’m a huge fan of Douglas Sirk, and I consider his 1955 classic, All That Heaven Allows, to be one of the greatest films ever made. Sirk’s pacing and technique were perfectly matched to his subject matter, telling stories that dealt mostly with the suppression of freedom within the jaded society of 1950’s America. With Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes continues along this same theme, and does so in a way that would have surely made the old master smile.


Chris said...

I wrote on twitter at the weekend that I've been watching a boxed dvd set of some of Douglas Sirk's work, and I must say I'm very impressed with him as a director. Imitation of life, All that heaven allows, Written on the wind are my favourites by him.
The tarnished angels was disjointed, may grow on subsequent viewing, but actually contains some of my favourite Sirk scenes of all. I'll be reviewing some of his films later.

I haven't seen Far from heaven yet, but being similar in style to Sirk, I'll add it to my to-see-list right away ( :

DVD Infatuation said...

@moviesandsongs365: All 3 of the Sirk films you love (IMITATION OF LIFE, WRITTEN IN THE WIND, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS) are among my favorites as well. I'd also throw MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION into that mix. I haven't yet seen THE TARNISHED ANGELS, but I did see one Sirk film that I felt was flat and unappealing: BATTLE HYMN.

As for FAR FROM HEAVEN, I think you'll be impressed with how well director Todd Haynes recaptured some of that "Sirk-ian" magic!

Thanks for the comment

Chris said...

THE TARNISHED ANGELS is currently on YouTube, if you're interested:

DVD Infatuation said...

@moviesandsongs365: Thanks for the YouTube link. I'll check it out.