With FAR FROM HEAVEN, writer-director Todd Haynes meticulously recreates the look and conventions of 1950s "domestic drama"--and then subverts it. Like all domestic drama heroines, Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) is a glamorous woman, and the film finds her married to Frank (Dennis Quaid), a rising executive in television sales. They are the perfect 1950s family: they are upwardly mobile, have two children (a boy and a girl, of course), live in an expensive home in an expensive residential district. One evening, Cathy unexpectedly opens a door--and discovers that Frank is unfaithful to her.
If this were a Douglas Sirk film starring Lana Turner, Cathy would have found Frank in the arms of another woman and done battle with her to save her marriage. But Frank is in the arms of another man, something that falls completely outside Cathy's frame of reference. Desperate to save her marriage, she encourages Frank to see a psychiatrist; unable to confide in her friends lest she provoke a scandal, she finds solace in the company of her gardener. But he is black--and when their largely innocent friendship is discovered it provokes the very scandal she feared.
The themes of homosexuality and racism are merely the most obvious way in which Haynes subverts the genre. More interestingly, Haynes essentially presents us with characters trapped between the stereotypes of 1950s domestic drama and hard reality, and the result is often quite surreal. Time and again the characters respond to harsh reality by resorting to the high-flown dialogue and awkward dollops of social consciousness typical of the genre--and time and again the nature of the film works to highlight how ridiculously unnatural this response is. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly claustrophobic in feel, and while none can deny that it is homage in form, it becomes metaphor in fact, satirizing and condemning both the artificial social codes of the past and present. Moreover, it works to undercut our selective memory of the 1950s, which we prefer to recall as "Happy Days" but which saw the House Un-American Committee, The Cold War, and the beginnings of everything from racial integration, the gay rights movement, and feminism--and in the face of such issues role models like Lana Turner in her evening gown and Donna Reed with her pearls crack and shatter.
The cast is superlative here. Julianne Moore, whose career has been building for the past several years, clearly demonstrates that she is now in the same league with the greatest screen actresses of her generation, playing the role of Cathy Whittaker on so many levels that it has the effect of an emotional Rubik's Cube. Dennis Quaid, best known for playing mischievously macho "bad boy" characters, gives an extremely unexpected and highly charged performance as husband Frank, and both are excellently supported. The script captures every grotesque nuance of the 1950s domestic drama while neatly undermining it at every turn, and the production staff has done a remarkable job of recreating the visual style involved. The cinematography and score are incredibly beautiful, and the director's approach to the project is less homage than it is critical evaluation of those who enjoy such artificial constructs both then and now, both on the screen and off. It is an extraordinary feat, and quite possibly one of the best movies of the past ten years. The DVD package is quite interesting, with three solid documentaries and a good director's commentary.
FAR FROM HEAVEN will not be to every one's taste, not by a long shot. Many who liked the 1950s "domestic drama" genre--and many who don't--will not be able to make the leap of perception that Haynes requires, won't be able to shift gears to look at the work with the objectivity necessary. But it is powerful stuff, and I recommend it all the same. By Gary F. Taylor "GFT"
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