Filmmaker Firsts: Todd Haynes

#14: Far from Heaven (2002) – dir. Todd Haynes

This glossy melodrama is the product of Douglas Sirk’s aesthetic style (specifically 1955’s All That Heaven Allows and 1956’s Written on the Wind) and the narrative element of race from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). While the film has beautiful visuals, I do not think that it has a special enough narrative voice to make it stand out from the films that influenced it. As one IMDb member wrote in a review: “There is even less that is original in this film than in Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho … Does Todd Haynes have no voice of his own? The film crosses the line from homage to plagiarism. The only innovations here are to make the gardener black rather than white and the husband gay rather than dead.” I am inclined to agree, although that does not lessen the film’s emotional impact in some key scenes.

The film does a good job of recapturing what suburban New England looked like in the 1950s, or at least the way it looked in other 50s films like Sirk’s output or the Lana Turner film Peyton Place (1957). Edward Lachman’s cinematography is impressive, deepening the colors so that they stand out like they did in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas.

The rich blue-purple light in the cinematography in some scenes evokes Written on the Wind (examples A, B, C). Far from Heaven seems to skew more towards purple than blue, so I suppose that sets it a little bit apart from Sirk’s style, but it is still clear where the film borrows its hues from.

Julianne Moore is the film’s emotional center. Even in an act as simple as looking out of a window (like Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows), you get a sense of where the character’s mind is at that particular time. The performance is better than what the film alone dictates since Moore is a good enough actress to rise above the mandates of the written page.

Dennis Quaid does a decent job as the tormented husband, but I have always thought of him as being a bit of a wooden actor. It’s a difficult role, playing a man fighting to repress his urges and deny his identity as a gay man while simultaneously trying to maintain his status as a heterosexual husband and father, but I never really felt totally convinced by Quaid’s performance.

Again, like Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows, there are a number of shots of Julianne Moore sitting or standing before a mirror or window. There are multiple sides to the main characters, which seems a fairly obvious observation if you are at all familiar with melodramas and the tendencies of characters to be multifaceted. Then again, aren’t all characters supposed to be multifaceted? Otherwise they wouldn’t be worth watching.

The relationship between Moore and Dennis Haysbert is very delicately handled. Refraining from romance gives them the chance to develop a friendship first and foremost, so that’s nice, but at the same time it’s hard to understand why they would bypass a chance at happiness. (The reason given in the film is logical but still a little disappointing.) As in All That Heaven Allows, the love of a child is apparently more important than the love of a mate. The only difference is that in All That Heaven Allows, Jane Wyman eventually realizes how silly it was to pay attention to what her children or society told her and she goes back to Rock Hudson. True, the situation is different since race is not involved, but you wonder why Far from Heaven had to make everyone in it so thoroughly miserable with their life choices. I found myself longing for Fassbinder’s fresh take in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul which updates All That Heaven Allows with twists unique to Fassbinder’s vision and West German cinema.

I think you might have guessed that I find the conclusion of Far from Heaven unsatisfying. It’s hard to tell where Moore’s character will go from there, though at the very least she has become more aware of America’s inequality, prejudice and hatred. I would recommend the film on the basis of its actors – also including Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Bette Henritze, Celia Weston and June Squibb – but it is only an imitation of Douglas Sirk’s imitations of life.

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