In Douglas Sirk’s 1955 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows, a middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) incurs the wrath of a small town when she falls in love with her young gardener (Rock Hudson). 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. In Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes goes one step further by adding the element of sexuality.
Far from Heaven opens with a dissolve between a canvas painting of a tree branch and its real-life representation, a stylistic flourish that immediately calls attention to the mechanism at work in this melodrama. Like Sirk before him, 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 a local art exhibition, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) bumps into her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He 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 the film’s mise-en-scène that demand decodification.
Cathy is a mother of two, 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 is seemingly “perfect” about upper-middle-class suburbia. A reporter does a story on Cathy for the local paper because “behind every great man there’s a great woman.” The article claims that Cathy is “kind to the Negroes” and her best friend Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson) tells a group of catty friends that Cathy’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 is not 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 all is not perfect. 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 husband’s lives. What he understands more, though, is how these women were forced to keep up appearances.
Far from Heaven is set in 1957 in Hartford, Connecticut. The time period’s social realities and political upheavals are buried below 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. 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 a closet. Cathy and Frank opt to go to Miami despite the prevalence of pink in the city’s architecture.
Far from Heaven is more political than All That Heaven Allows and even Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In doing research on homosexuality for the film, Haynes discovered that the ‘50s weren’t as repressive as he first thought. “There were breakthroughs in the late ‘40s and in some writings, doctors were saying that this was not a sickness and that you really can’t change it. So it was actually more progressive than I thought,” he says. The film’s three main characters are all oppressed yet Cathy’s suffrage is the most extreme. Frank can hide beneath the guise of heterosexuality and Raymond can move to another state but there’s no way for Cathy to conceal her gender. Haynes begs that we apply his latest “woman’s picture” to the world today. Fifty years after the events depicted in Far from Heaven, do we treat blacks, gays and women much differently?
Elmer Bernstein’s score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complimenting 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 is 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 is 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.” The film’s final shot evokes a changing season and perhaps a changing cultural tide.