Reaching Heaven

Eric Hoyt

In an Oscar worthy performance, Julianne Moore plays the film’s heroine, Cathy Whitaker. On the surface, Cathy is the perfect wife, mother, and socialite. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) has a successful career in the marketing department of a booming television manufacturing firm. Her children are “perfectly lovely” and she likes nothing better than to attend a modern art exhibition or enjoy a cold daiquari with her good female friends, all of whom have husbands that work at the same company.

We quickly learn, however, that beyond the gilded surface, things aren’t so pretty. For one, Frank is a closeted homosexual. Cathy also develops feelings for her black gardner, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). And if we look more closely at those social functions that she frequents, they always involve her abandoning or neglecting her children in favor of throwing back cocktails or rubbing noses with Hartford, Connecticut’s social elite.

The plot described above sounds like the material of daytime soap opear. In fact, it is. The genius of the film, however, is how it lifts this material into art and fleshes the characters out into real, feeling people.

“Far From Heaven” is set in the American 1950’s, but its approach to representing history is not like most period films. Rather than merely being set in the past, Haynes actively uses the popular film style of the time to represent the 1950’s. Although the film approaches topics such as homosexuality and interracial relationships that could have never been dealt with in a major 1950’s Hollywood movie, everything is still processed through the same stylisitic filter Consider for instance the gay bar that Frank enters. Haynes is not trying to recreate what an actual gay bar would look like in Connecticut in the late 1950’s, instead he is trying to recreate what producers on a sound stage in 1950’s Hollywood would have imagined a gay bar would like .

Todd Haynes modeled “Far From Heaven” after the 1950’s technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk such as “Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” and especially, “All That Heaven Allows,” which “Far From Heaven’s” plot closely resembles. “All That Heaven Allows” stars Jane Wyman as Cary Scott, a middle-aged widow who falls in love with her younger gardner (Rock Hudson). Unlike “Far From Heaven,” their relationship becomes scandalous because it breaks class boundaries, not racial ones. Also, homosexuality is not addressed in “All That Heaven Allows” — that is unless you consider the casting of Rock Hudson, who remained in the closet until shortly before his death of AIDS in the 1980’s. Sirk was well aware of Rock Hudson’s sexuality and his casting of Hudson in the masculine role of the gardner can be read as an ironic commentary on the American culture that he entered as a European outsider.

While Sirk’s melodramas feature dramatic and occasionally outrageous stories, they are best remembered for their stylistic techniques. Haynes has a perfect eye for film style and consequently, “Far From Heaven” is splashed with Sirk’s look. For instance, Sirk uses mirrors and windows repeatedly to frame objects and characters, something that Haynes displays in an early scene in Cathy’s bathroom. In terms of editing, dissolves are heavily used to give a smoother and more lush feeling than wouldn’t translate with a jerky cut. Most notable, however, is the highly saturated color photography. In collaboration with cinematographer Ed Lachman, Todd Haynes reproduces Sirk’s heavy hues to their full grandeur.

As “Far From Heaven” progresses, color repeatedly takes on different, thematic meanings. Cathy’s excessive purple and turqoise dresses illustrate the artificiality of her world. Raymond’s gardener clothes are made up primarily of earth tones such as browns and greens, strengthening his connection with nature and what remains genuine. Lachman also utilizes lighting to transform color, sometimes within individual scenes. When Cathy and Raymond eat in an all black diner, the restaurant’s drab lighting creates the illusion that the two are wearing the same shade of green. Through color, they are united, both visually and thematically.

The social codes of Hartford are too

The most telling line of the film comes as Raymond and Cathy meet outside of a movie theater. Both suffer from the alienatiing effects of gossip spread about their alleged romance.

“Do you think that people can ever look past the surface?” Raymond desperately asks.

On one hand, Raymond’s words enunciate the racism prevalent in 1950’s American society, a society that could contain a woman in a loveless marriage to a gay husband but forbid her a meaningful friendship with a black man.

Another way to interpret these words is in relation to the film as a whole. Beneath the glittery look and sumptuous surface of “Far From Heaven” lies another beating, breaking heart. Because of the powerful tension between its lavish style and the ugly suffering of its characters, the film becomes all the more moving.

Raymond’s words also invite us to consider film history; to rethink those 1950’s Hollywood movies that would have played at the Hartford movie palace. Sirk’s films have so much commentary, feeling, and irony bubbling beneath their gorgeous styles. Haynes thus challenges us — can we look past the surface of a Douglas Sirk or Max Ophuls melodrama? a John Ford or Budd Boetticher western? a Fritz Lang or Jules Dassin noir?

Rarely does a film do so much to enrich our sense of film and our interpretation of film history as “Far From Heaven.” And even more rarely is a film so moving.