Far From Heaven
Not since In the Mood for Love
, have I been so immediately and utterly seduced by a film’s visual qualities. The phrase that I used then, applies again: “swoon-inducing”. Far From Heaven
’s rich colours, ravishing (that word again) cinematography, and meticulous costume and set details, are immediately obvious. What more slowly dawned on me, beguiled as I was by the visuals, was how superbly and consistently the director and cast sustain the film’s tone.
To modern viewers, this film covers familiar territory. It’s Ordinary People
, Ice Storm
, and (dare I say the name here) American Beauty
country. Yeah, yeah, so what’s new? In a world where The Osbournes graces our TV sets, can we still be surprised by – or care about – Todd Haynes’ story of dysfunction and secrets behind suburban walls? Absolutely.
In not only setting this film in the last 50s, but filming it as if it were a film of
the fifties, Haynes has retroactively created the
Ur-Alt-Pleasantville. Even for viewers who were born decades later, Haynes, Haysbert, Moore and Quaid brilliantly evoke the look, feel, mood and mores of that world. Frank Whitaker, with his grey flannel suits and constricted body language; Cathy Whitaker’s perfect corporate wife, full of polite and controlled charm; Raymond Deagon, a “good” Negro, deferential and hardworking. - All this in 1957: the year Little Rock, Arkansas, made the headlines; pre-Stonewall; pre-“women’s lib”.
Possible thematic spoilers
One of the things I liked about this script (by Haynes) is its eye for subsidiary detail: the casual racism inherent in Dr. Bowman, a white man, calling a black adult “boy”; cocktail party chatter in which someone, entirely oblivious to the presence of black waiters serving him, loudly declares there are “no coloureds” in the community; the “artistic” uncle who is accepted because he challenges no homosexual stereotypes (and allows people to feel condescendingly open-minded). Even Cathy Whitaker, while professing the best of intentions, in one scene casually dismisses the NAACP petitioners who come to her door, asking her maid, “would you please sign [the petition] for me?” Haynes shows the polite, whispered, unthinking and perhaps even unintentioned face of racism and homophobia: insidiously, quietly destructive.
For me, Frank Whitaker (in an absorbing portrayal by Quaid) has the single most devastatingly cringe-inducing scene: the one in the gay bar. It’s all in his face and body language - the guilt and discomfort; his inability to resist his curiosity, while yet studiedly refusing to acknowledge it. In Whitaker, Quaid gives the performance of his career to date, an emotionally courageous portrait of a man deeply conflicted, and in pain.
More later in the week... gotta run. A quick note: Julianne Moore is a goddess.
: Someone - was it was Ebert? - observed that the "point" of this retro recreation is that we, the audience, are as trapped in this world as its protagonists. I'd agree with that.