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Review: Far from Heaven

Haynes’s remarkable use of mirrors emphasizes the emotional distance between characters and the sad way they avoid confrontation.

Far from Heaven
Photo: Focus Features

In Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a middle-aged widow incurs the wrath of a small town when she falls in love with her young gardener. She sacrifices love for a community’s acceptance only to realize, perhaps too late, that she’s made the wrong decision. The film’s title not only refers to her upper-middle-class milieu and its grueling demands, but also to the widow’s own personal allowances. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder reworked All That Heaven Allows but introduced race and the ideology of a working-class Germany into the equation. Now, in Far from Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes goes one step further by adding the element of sexuality.

The film opens with a dissolve between a painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Haynes is fascinated with the thin lines that separate the world from an idealized version of reality and the paths of resistance that lie therein. At an art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who teaches her to interpret the Picassos and Mirós that hang on the walls and observes how modern art has pared religious art down to simple shapes and colors. Again, Haynes calls attention to the expressive elements at work in this magnificent experiment, the “smoke and mirrors” of a mise-en-scène that demand decodification.

Cathy, a mother of two, is married to a successful businessman, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who works for Magnatech, a powerful television sales company. (In All That Heaven Allows, television was used to keep women occupied and, therefore, out of trouble.) Cathy and Frank are referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech,” no doubt because they embody everything that’s seemingly “perfect” about upper-middle-class suburbia. A Weekly Gazette reporter (Bette Henritze) does a story on Cathy because “behind every great man there’s a great woman,” and after the article causes a stir for claiming that Cathy is “kind to the Negroes,” her best friend, Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson), covers for her, saying that she’s been called a “red” ever since “she played summer stock with all those steamy Jewish boys.” Society extols her even as they recognize that she may be a loose cannon. She may not be able to distinguish a fake Rembrandt from the real thing but she can appreciate Picassos.

Cathy’s willingness to understand others isn’t only implied by her support for the NAACP and her kindness to Raymond but in her willingness to forgive Frank after she catches him cheating on her with another man. “I know it’s bad because it makes me feel despicable,” says Frank to his psychologist (James Rebhorn). He looks to cure his “disease” just as Cathy looks to fix her husband before the world outside begins to notice that their lives are far from perfect. Indeed, when Frank accidentally strikes Cathy, it’s only natural that she hides her bruises from everyone around her. Haynes understands how women like Cathy were financially dependent on men, reduced to supporting players in their husbands’ lives. What he understands more, however, is how these women were forced to keep up appearances.

Far from Heaven is set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, the social realities and political upheavals of which are buried beneath a rich tapestry of signs. Haynes’s remarkable use of mirrors emphasizes the emotional distance between characters and the sad way they avoid confrontation. For Christmas, Cathy gives Frank a box full of vacation brochures, and front and center is a pamphlet extolling Cuba’s beauty. Not only was 1957 the height of Fidel Castro’s war against Fulgencio Batista, but it was also the year of the Little Rock school desegregation scandal. Haynes repeatedly frames Frank next to elaborate Eames-era light fixtures and, in one scene, implies that he broke a lamp in his office during a fit of rage and hid the broken pieces inside, yes, a closet. Cathy and Frank don’t go to Cuba, instead opting to travel to Miami, this in spite the prevalence of pink in the city’s architecture.

Elmer Bernstein’s score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complementing the tone of the characters’ voices and the traumas written on their faces. When Frank enters an underground gay bar, Edward Lachman’s camera evokes the character’s fear with a splash of menacing greens and muted reds. More remarkable, though, is how the film seemingly loses its color when things begin to go wrong for Cathy. Haynes seemingly suggests that there’s no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others. Cathy is drawn to Frank not because of his race or because of her own sense of not-being, but because he’s willing to listen to her voice. Here is a film of great humanism that applies as much to the ‘50s as it does to the world today and everyone who inhabits it. Standing before a painting by Jean Miró, Frank and Cathy grow closer together. The name of the painting? The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers. And so the film’s final shot evokes not only changing season, but hopefully also a changing cultural tide.

Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Celia Weston Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Todd Haynes Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 107 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2002 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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