FAR FROM HEAVEN (PG-13). Pastels and pathos: Audacious homage to and inversion of the Hollywood “woman’s film” of the ’30s-’60s is an emotionally wrenching drama from the most important director in American cinema. With Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Quaid, Viola Davis. Written and directed by Todd Haynes. 1:47 (adult content, language). At the Angelika Film Center, Houston and Mercer streets, and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Broadway at 63rd Street, Manhattan.
“Do you think we really do? See beyond the surface of things?”
Cathy Whitaker, emotionally upholstered wife, mother and bouffanted anachronism of Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” is about to have an epiphany – maybe – about the qualities that define her life in Eisenhower-era Hartford.
But the real questioner – and it is a real question – is Todd Haynes himself. For the entirety of his underappreciated career, from the cult-classic “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (famously cast with Barbie dolls), to his mid-’90s masterpiece “Safe” to the undersung “Velvet Goldmine,” the New York-based director has been creating films as opaque surfaces that both reveal and reflect; porous surfaces that vent the bourgeois gas of modern American life. That he would make “Far From Heaven,” which is both an homage to the late, great Douglas Sirk (“All That Heaven Allows,” “Imitation of Life”) and Sirk’s films of domestic repression, is not really surprising. It’s – daring, it’s risky, but not surprising: The uninhibited palette, heady stylization and rich vein of irony in such films make nothing but sense for a director like Haynes (not that there are any like Haynes), one with such a deep appreciation for the opportunities of genre.
What is surprising is how handily Haynes outdoes Sirk at his own game of soulful artifice.
Cathy, played with breathtaking poise by the glorious Julianne Moore, should be, but isn’t, a joke: Her diction is perfect, her manners are perfect, her hairdo is perfect, her wool suits are perfectly awful; her aqua-and-almond- hued home is immaculate, she bids her family goodbye each morning, Donna Reed-style at the doorway, before lunching with the girls or dishing with Eleanor (the delightfully Eve Arden- esque Patricia Clarkson). Cathy’s purpose in life is facilitation: of her children’s upbringing, of the maintenance of her home and of the infantilization of her gray-flanneled husband, the lock-jawed Frank (Dennis Quaid), a closeted homosexual whose sexual crisis turns Cathy’s home into a house of cards.
“Far From Heaven” is a highly personal film; you can feel the love of form and color that Haynes pours into the picture, with its Technicolor gloss and noirish inflections. The script is a brilliantly complex mix of period idiom, quasi-gibberish (what is “portfolio season” supposed to mean down at Frank’s office?) and heightened, polished manners. But Haynes also has two invaluable collaborators (in addition to longtime producer Christine Vachon) in Elmer Bernstein and Edward Lachman.
Bernstein, the celebrated film composer (“To Kill a Mockingbird” among others), has created a score that not only recaptures 1957 sonically, its chordal progressions are themselves in thematic sync with Haynes’ storytelling; where you expect him to go minor, for instance, he stays major, as if to mirror Cathy’s unconquerable (almost) optimism, whether it involves her husband’s “illness” (“I know it’s a sickness,” Frank growls, “because it makes me feel despicable…”) or her ever-deepening friendship with the Poitier- inspired gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a relationship that provokes all of ’50s Hartford’s racist inclinations.
Lachman’s cinematography is simply spectacular, imbuing the slickest of surfaces with a measure of dread. “Far From Heaven” couldn’t exist – or at least could never succeed – without the quality of Lachman’s pictures.
Audiences will laugh at “Far From Heaven” when it gives voice to what were once generally accepted opinions or outmoded behavior or social formality. But its core is a nugget of emotional truth and longing that’s irresistible, and inextricably tied to a power so purely cinematic you wonder why so many other directors even bother.
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