Far from Heaven is a bold experiment in moviemaking that really pays off. Many modern films have been set in the fifties, but Todd Haynes takes it a step further. He makes a movie that looks like it was made in the fifties.
Its sense of melodrama, its musical score, its very look recalls Douglas Sirk, who made women’s melodramas in that era. (Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, released just a few months earlier also captured Sirk’s style to a lesser extent.)
The key difference between authentic fifties melodramas and Far from Heaven is that what only existed as subtext in Sirk’s films comes to the fore in Haynes’ film. Issues of race, sexuality, fidelity, and alcoholism were used obliquely, if at all, in the cinema of fifty years ago. Nowadays, filmmakers are freer to openly discuss these issues.
It’s Just a Movie, It’s Not Real
PG-13 for Mature thematic elements, sexual content
The fifties of Far from Heaven is a fifties filtered by movies and television, not necessarily one as lived by real Americans, as the first moments of the film show. The movie opens on an idyllic American town (supposedly Hartford, CT) with lush green lawns technicolor fall foliage. Shiny new bulbous cars drive slowly through the picturesque town square.
In this perfect setting lives a perfect family. Carol and Frank (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) are raising two perfect children with the help of their colored maid Sybil. Frank works for Magnatech, a company that makes TVs and radios, while Carol stays home with the kids, running errands and setting up social functions.
Trouble in Paradise
But there is trouble in Paradise. Frank hasn’t been coming home. He’s been having an affair after work, and it’s not with another woman. Carol, meanwhile, has found solace and friendship in Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), their gardener. They are not having an affair, but there is some unspoken sexual tension between them. Because Raymond is black, rumors are exaggerated and allowed to spread. Carol’s friends tell her that if she keeps continues seeing Raymond, she faces complete ostracism.
Running through the background is a steady trickle of alcohol. The facade of perfection requires lots of social lubrication. When the women get together in the afternoons for their girl talk, daiquiris are served. When the social norms call for some friendly male bonding, there is always a glass of scotch or a bourbon. Though a little alcohol may smooth over the rough edge, too much can tear the fabric. One of the most shocking moments in the film is at a party, when Frank blurts out an unkind remark about his wife, intended as a joke, but cutting to the bone.
The Devil’s in the DetailsFar from Heaven is a film that ought to be seen up close, because there is a lot going on in the details. Visually, the film is outstanding. In every corner is some well-observed artifact of the era: the “modern” Magnatech logo, the green glass coffee mugs at work, the bicycle their son rides. Often these details transcend the visual and add depth to the movie. One of the lamps in Carol’s home is a caricatured statue of a Chinaman, reminding us of the racism in this world. The movies on the marquee – Hilda Crane, The Bold and the Beautiful, Three Faces of Eve – are all carefully and deliberately chosen.
Even the setting is carefully controlled to reflect the mood of the film while still maintaining a visual integrity. The opening technicolor autumn (borrowed from Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows) transitions into a lifeless and dreary winter. A vacation to sunny Florida provides only a fleeting and superficial relief from Carol and Frank’s problems, and then it’s back to the winter of their discontent. And although the film’s ending isn’t entirely hopeful, the last shot lingers on a single budding branch in the foreground of the dead and dirty winter in Hartford.
How Far We’ve Come
Maybe Haynes made Far from Heaven as a fifties melodrama precisely because he thinks issues of race, sexuality, fidelity and alcoholism are still shocking in America. Race is still a huge factor in our justice system. Homosexuality is still taboo in our armed forces and almost all political offices. Problems of fidelity and alcoholism haven’t changed in centuries, and probably never will.
Maybe by telling a story as though this were the fifties is his way of showing us just how far we haven’t come. Perhaps all that’s changed is that these problems face us more directly, less subtly than they used to.
The Bold and the Beautiful
Far from Heaven is a bold and successful film. A lesser director would have made it into a farce, a parody of Sirk’s style. Instead, Haynes approaches the style with sincerity, skill, and an eye for detail. He finds a way to make this type of movie relevant, even fifty years later, without modernizing it too much. It’s a bold experiment, and it works beautifully.