About two-thirds of the way through Todd Haynes' 1950s melodrama Far From Heaven one character, a black man, says to another, a white woman, that he wishes for a world where "maybe for one fleeting instant, we could see beyond the surface of things." And when she questions whether someone could actually believe in the possibility of such a world, he confesses that he has no choice but to believe it.
In other hands at other times, the line might be hokey, but at this moment in this film it is devastating. And it also, more than anything else, exposes the aims and sums up the profound wish of Haynes' film -- a cinematic essay on the 1950s and on the social prisons we construct for one another.
Todd Haynes will likely never be a household name, but, with this film, his fourth feature, one could make the case that he is among the greatest contemporary American filmmakers. Haynes made his feature debut with the little-seen avant-garde triptych Poison, which poetically links three stylistically diverse stories (a prison sex story adapted from Jean Genet, a '50s sci-fi/horror homage, and a contemporary, TV-style investigation of a child who kills his father). Then came Safe, a subversive masterpiece that first paired Haynes with Far From Heaven star Julianne Moore. A disquieting "disease-of-the-week" parody about an "environmental illness" more ideological and spiritual than physical, Safe was named the best film of the '90s in a Village Voice national critics poll a couple of years ago and may have deserved the honor.
Haynes' last film was the ambitious, underrated, and generally misunderstood Velvet Goldmine. A tribute to the bisexual tumult of glam-rock, Goldmine was criticized in some quarters because its rock-star subjects didn't seem like real people when, in fact, that was precisely the point -- it was a film about the obsessions and fetishes of fandom, not about the lives of rock stars, and its David Bowie and Iggy Pop stand-ins were merely posters on a kid's bedroom wall come to life.
With Far From Heaven, Haynes has taken on his biggest budget and highest-profile project yet, an homage of sorts to Douglas Sirk's classic Technicolor melodramas from the '50s (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life). Far From Heaven is, to an extent, a remake of All That Heaven Allows -- in which a wealthy suburban widow (Jane Wyman) falls in love with her gardener (Rock Hudson) only to be shunned by her community -- though Far From Heaven's consideration of race also nods to Imitation of Life (Sirk's greatest film).
Haynes' version of the story is set in Hartford, Connecticut, in the late '50s. Suburban couple Frank (Dennis Quaid) and Cathy (Moore) Whitaker are model Eisenhower-era citizens. Frank is a sales executive with the television company Magnatech and Cathy is a homemaker, local socialite, and mother of two Dick-and-Jane-style children. Together, Frank and Cathy pose for company ads as "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech." But, as their marriage falls apart, Cathy befriends Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her African-American gardener. All three characters are tempted by urges -- sexual, romantic, political, basic human -- that are forbidden and policed by the society in which they live.
In Haynes' vision, surfaces are never what they seem: The upstanding family man and sales executive is a closeted homosexual negotiating shame and desire. The black manual laborer is actually a soft-spoken, well-educated entrepreneur with a taste for modern art. And, perhaps most challenging to the audience, the uptight suburban housewife who flinches at the unexpected sight of a black man in her backyard is actually kind and decent and thoughtful.
Moore's Cathy is like a porcelain doll -- immaculately costumed and equally stiff, with great effort put into sustaining the appearance of an effortlessly decent home and community life. But her humanity pokes through, and the bright red gloves she sometimes wears become an unwitting symbol of her decency and difference. Cathy may be startled to see Raymond (who is taking over the job from his deceased father) in her yard, but once she finds out who he is, she greets him with kindness and familiarity, placing her hand on his shoulder, a gesture that gets her written up by a visiting reporter from the local "society" paper as emblematic of her "kindness to Negroes." Later, joking about the story, Cathy's friends chastise her: "Cathy's been a liberal since she did summer stock in college with those seamy Jewish boys," one says. "Why do you think they used to call her Red?" another replies.
Visually, Far From Heaven is remarkable. From its opening shot on, it's an astonishing burst of color -- a mélange of burning reddish-orange autumn foliage, baby-blue boat-like cars, and Moore's eye-popping aquamarine and pink wardrobe. Haynes similarly designs his interiors as a vibrant play of colors. The overall effect uncannily apes Technicolor, the florid style underscoring florid emotions, while other aspects of the filming -- crane shots, dissolves, editing, framing, Elmer Bernstein's opulent score -- show Haynes in full command of Sirk's classical style.
Would any other contemporary filmmaker be able to reproduce this world? On a purely technical level, one could imagine Todd Solandz or the Coen brothers giving it a shot, but would they also have the guts or vision to meet the source material on its own terms? To bring the kind of inspiring and perhaps unsettling sincerity to the material that Haynes does? Imagining other filmmakers of Haynes' generation tackling this material illuminates the distinction between sarcasm and irony, or perhaps between cheap, detached irony and profound, compassionate irony.
It should be said that the world that Haynes reproduces here isn't exactly the '50s itself but rather the '50s world of Sirk's films. Yet, at the same time, Haynes isn't commenting as much on Sirk as using the same visual and conceptual vocabulary to comment on the same world Sirk examined. In this respect, one can see Haynes' relation to Sirk in a similar way as Brian De Palma's relation to Alfred Hitchcock: In some of De Palma's Hitchcockian scenarios, one gets the impression that this may be how Hitchcock would have filmed it if he'd been freed from the representational constraints of his time -- production codes that forbade nudity and frowned-upon blood or explicit violence.
Similarly, social issues left unexplored or submerged in Sirk can rise to the surface now. One can see these new worlds opened up through Haynes' acknowledgment of homosexuality, of the prospect of interracial romance (Sirk's treatment of race in Imitation of Life is unbearably moving, but one can't imagine him showing a knowing romantic connection between a black man and white woman, not in a '50s Hollywood film), of portions of society left unshown in films of the time (a subterranean gay bar, the "black" side of town -- the only possible exception in Sirk is the funeral scene at the end of Imitation of Life). And also in the moments when the Whitakers' carefully cultivated facade of composure and normalcy breaks down, as when Frank explodes at a suffocatingly supportive Cathy after his first psychiatric visit meant to "cure" his homosexuality: "Look, I just want to get this whole fucking thing over with! Can't you see that?"
More so than perhaps even Sirk, Haynes exposes a particular vision of Eisenhower America as a mere imitation of life. This world of surfaces has conflict bubbling below (references to McCarthy, Cuba, and the desegregation crisis in Little Rock), but its characters can barely acknowledge reality (as in the stuttering, stammering, nonconversation Cathy and Frank have after she discovers him embracing another man). But, as Cathy's marriage, and thus her illusion of happiness, begins to crumble, her friendship with Raymond intensifies, and actual life begins to replace its imitation.
There's a remarkable sequence in which Raymond bravely takes Cathy to a restaurant in the "black" section of Hartford. She had earlier asked him what it felt like to be the "only one" in a room; seated at the restaurant, a crowd of dark faces staring warily at Cathy, Raymond raises his glass to slyly toast to "being the only one." He calls her Mrs. Whitaker, and you can see Cathy's cultivated decorum slip away right there on the screen and a real person emerge. "Mrs. Whitaker sounds so formal," she says. " Would you " "Would I what?" Raymond responds. She hesitates, braces herself, then takes the plunge: "Ask me to dance?" The scene is otherworldly and probably unrealistic (a supper club full of people with a full band playing in the middle of the day?), but it's magical, and that magic dissolves the second Raymond and Cathy return to the real world, where one of Cathy's gossipy "friends" has spotted them together.
One thing Haynes is doing here is triangulating social oppression into representations of race, sexuality, and gender. But it's surprising where his most intense sympathies lie. Frank eventually confesses to Cathy that he's "fallen in love with someone, and he wants to be with me. I've never known what that felt like." And he asks for a divorce. Raymond, suffering as much pressure in his community for his relationship with Cathy as she has, decides to pack his daughter and move to Baltimore to start a new life. Both Raymond and Frank are able to retreat into their own worlds, to find new beginnings. They each have somewhere to go. But Cathy has nowhere to go but the social trap of her nice suburban home, crying alone in her bedroom, doomed to lose the one person in the world she feels truly alive around. Or to make a clandestine appearance at the train station, one red-gloved hand waving impotently as Raymond exits what's left of her life.