'Heaven' Is a Place on Earth
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
The Melodrama genre is dead, deader even than the Western. We're toohip and ironic these days to swallow any portion of sentiment that's notproperly salted.
But in its day, the Melodrama ruled. Filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray dabbled occasionally (Some Came Running and Bigger Than Life, respectively) while John M. Stahl (Back Street, Imitation of Life) cranked them out by the handful. But the genre has only one true master: Douglas Sirk.
During their peak in the mid to late 1950s, Sirk's films earned enough money to partially eased their critical scorn. But in the years since his death his reputation has grown. One has only to watch the opening sequence of Written on the Wind (1956), which introduces its four drastic, tragic characters with lots of style and no dialogue.
Soon, French critics recognized a distinctive artistry in the films, and German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder gobbled up Sirk's works and paid tribute a few times, most overtly in his 1974 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.
And in 1994, Quentin Tarantino offered us a "Douglas Sirk steak" in Pulp Fiction served either "burnt to a crisp" or "bloody as hell."
Now for the first time in decades, we have the real thing, or as close as we're likely to get. Todd Haynes' new film Far from Heaven seems to come from within Sirk; indeed, it's made of Sirk. The title itself sounds like a Sirk movie, a double twist on an idea that sounds wonderful and horrible at the same time.
Taking a cue from Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, Haynes begins with a crisp, 1957 Hartford, Connecticut housewife named Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) who keeps an immaculate house -- or, rather, her black maid does -- hosts the best parties and serves as an example for other housewives everywhere.
Her perfect husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) has a job in TV advertising and keeps up his end of the deal in their appearance toward others. But Frank can't control certain urges that drive him to visit a certain bar that only serves a certain kind of all-male clientele (wink, wink).
At the same time, Cathy finds herself becoming friendly with her gardener, the kindhearted African-American Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert, from TV's "24"). Maybe a little too friendly -- Cathy has already earned a reputation for "being kind to Negroes" and the neighbors are starting to talk. Especially after Cathy and Raymond run into each other at an art show and Raymond eloquently explains one of the abstract paintings to her.
In Sirk's original, the housewife (played by Jane Wyman) causes a scandal by falling in love with her gardener (played by Rock Hudson) who is younger than she is. So imagine Haynes cranking up the stakes by setting a movie in the same world with a gay husband and an interracial love affair. Haynes doesn't even need to get graphic; we never see so much as an illicit kiss. Far from Heaven is all about surfaces and appearances and how easily they can be mistaken for the real thing.
Haynes goes so far as to re-create Sirk's world exactly, down to the glowing Technicolor hues and sinister shadows and a gifted feel for brisk, colorful autumn weather and even a vintage-flavored score by Elmer Bernstein.
In one scene, Moore's scarf blows away in the chilly autumn wind, mixing with the colorful leaves -- and it seems as if Haynes planned every motion of every leaf to dance with the scarf.
It's true that Sirk's films come with a certain camp value, mostly derived from the vast difference between their quaint world and our real world. But Sirk, and Haynes as well, take their stories and characters absolutely seriously within the shiny plastic guidelines set out for them.
To be sure, Haynes has dabbled in camp before -- his short films Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Dottie Gets Spanked and his feature Velvet Goldmine -- but Far from Heaven belongs in the same category as his 1995 masterpiece Safe, a careful, almost frigid bit of filmmaking in which the characters mesh directly with their environment.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the actors might find themselves restricted by this bizarre world, but Moore and Quaid -- and especially the wonderful Patricia Clarkson in a superb supporting role -- use the movie's flawless surface as a challenge; they break through without letting anything show. Rather, we feel their pain.
In addition, Deagan plays the black character without reaching too far into perfect nobility; he's no poster boy. He's allowed his flaws, his little collapses into human worry and uncertainty just as much as the others. But remember that he, too, must keep up the fa�ade for fear of banishment.
By directly taking on Sirk's universe, Haynes tells his own story and makes comment on Sirk's at the same time; it's an unnerving, entertaining and brilliant piece of film criticism. But unlike a dry, dull chunk of academia, Far from Heaven lives and breathes. It aches and soars. And it's one of the year's best films.