In a remarkable new film called Far from Heaven, Julianne Moore plays Cathy, an upper-class housewife in a posh Connecticut suburb in the 1950s. Early in the film, when she discovers her husband in the arms of another man, she is shocked–but not to the extent we might have expected. The hidebound world she inhabits is so cloistered, so insular, you could fully believe that it might never occur to the people who live in such a place that there should be men who desire each other sexually. In fact they all know it–and many other things they’d rather not know–but their safety from being challenged depends on a repressive atmosphere fomented by the pretense that they don’t.
Repression is the subject of Far from Heaven, but it isn’t treated in ordinary terms, as a covert system of constraint. In this movie everything is right out in the open, visible in every quarter–the hypocrisy, racism, class conflict and intense desires the characters still feel amid these inhibiting forces. Above all, the movie is about homophobia: It adopts a mode of fervent high-camp to keep that subject central, even when it’s relatively peripheral in the plot.
The film’s style doesn’t just simulate a 1950s movie soap opera: It specifically mimics the look, the feel, and some of the iconography of a handful of Douglas Sirk melodramas from the period–including Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life.
In one respect this connection should not be overstated: Far From Heaven draws on a large fund of references in its evocation of the era. The stories of John Cheever, books like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or The Organization Man, and other period movies like Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (recently remade as The Deep End) and the film version of Peyton Place are visible as well.
But in another quite specialized sense, the Sirk connection cannot be overstated. Sirk’s movies were about the relation of repression to desire, and they forged a very recognizable visual style to convey this theme. Their distinctive looks were all blue-gray glaze (since Sirk shot with special lenses to emphasize the icy surfaces of his compositions), with delirious splashes of primary color to suggest the feverish emotions being squelched in the stories. Such expressionist tendencies were invisible to critics of the day, who largely dismissed Sirk’s films as banal “women’s pictures.” Only later were they reevaluated as complex works, which brought a powerful strain of Brechtian irony to Hollywood genre filmmaking. Yet the films’ heated, sardonic modernism had never really been invisible. It just wasn’t seen.
And that is the main concern of Far from Heaven: the relation of the visible to the unseen. The adaptation of Sirk’s style works on at least three levels.
First, it makes us aware that the version of ’50s America we’re seeing here is one that’s been filtered through cultural references, instead of being reconstructed in some “direct” way. Second, its meticulous emulation of sources animates the film’s camp sensibility with a current of epicurean rapture. Finally, since Far from Heaven expresses an intense love for the kinds of films it’s modeled on, that commitment infuses the movie with a depth of emotion which translates into an extraordinary feeling for time, place, and character.
Director Todd Haynes built a style out of simulation–intricately mannered yet emotionally immediate–that is now one of the great styles in American movies.
His first film was 1987’s Superstar, a disease-of-the-week-movie parody that told the story of Karen Carpenter’s anorexia, but with Barbie and Ken dolls playing all the characters in miniature sets. Superstar may begin as brazen mockery, but as its understanding of the social and cultural causes of Karen’s illness widens it takes on a bitter poignancy. By the end, feckless, slipshod close-ups of the expressionless dolls become heartbreaking, as we begin to see their superficially whimsical embodiment as a comment on their characters’ terrible vulnerabilities.
Haynes’ next film, Poison, was a complex 1991 trilogy that emerged as one of the defining works of the “New Queer Cinema.” One of the tales imitated a true-crime TV report, another a `50s horror movie, and the third simulated the works of Jean Genet. Intercutting between these styles with a halting, restless daring, the movie discovered a new relation between imitation, parody and pastiche that buoyed its themes of abjection, reprisal, and guilt.
Since this trilogy was already working against the irony of its own styles, it’s not surprising that Haynes’ subsequent film, Safe, puzzled many viewers with its story of a Southern California housewife (also played by Julianne Moore) equally afflicted by environmental sickness and the New Agey therapies that are the only palliatives available for her disease.
Though the film is as highly regarded as any American independent movie of the `90s, many critics initially wanted it to be clearer in its satirical attitudes toward either the illness or the remedy. But the question the movie is asking is a much more piercing one: Especially in the age of AIDS, if illness itself is subject to cultural construction, how can any cure be either trusted or faulted?
Haynes’s next film retreated to the age just before AIDS. Velvet Goldmine reconstructed ’70s glam-rock with kinetic reverberations of the films of Ken Russell or Nicolas Roeg. Yet the allegorical qualities of Haynes’ films always seem bent on expressing the difficulty of pursuing gay themes and styles, especially at a time when allegedly enlightened people commonly assume that gays have achieved liberation, while even the most fundamental aspects of gay identity continue to be violently repressed.
In Far from Heaven, the relation between the film’s marginal gay theme and its overweening gay sensibility forcefully illustrates the point. The most bitter irony in the film is that Cathy’s husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is able to find a form of happiness in a gay relationship while Cathy’s subsequent, tentative flirtation with her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), is emphatically prohibited.
On the one hand, this theme rightly connects the social and historical oppression of women, blacks and gays. On the other, it raises questions at least as complex as those of Safe, even if most viewers will find the tone far less baffling. The heterosexual relation between Cathy and Raymond is vilified because it’s visible, while the clandestine relation between Frank and his lover is possible only because it’s not.
Which is better? Neither is, of course. Both are more than thinkable within the community that legislates these relationships. In fact, it’s clear that community thinks about and imagines little else than what it wants to disappear. But the film’s ardent and tender tragic sense presents Cathy’s romance as the ultimate Hollywood cliché that can still bring us to tears. It does so while showing the pseudo-triumph of the husband’s sexuality as an ironic victory in the extent to which, by the end of the film, it has been almost completely rendered absent.
In its purest form, camp is the retrograde aesthetic style of a self-consciously closeted gay sensibility. Here Haynes adopts it wholeheartedly to suggest that the destiny of the closet is by no means a thing of the past. The filtering of this imaginary ’50s through a very contemporary ’90s sensibility makes much the same point.
So does Moore’s extraordinary performance, bridging a kind of highbrow sophistication with an intensity of emotional engagement. It’s no wonder that she shuttles so effortlessly between indie projects (Vanya on 42nd Street, The Myth of Fingerprints) and mainstream vehicles (Jurassic Park, Hannibal). Her style conflates a kind of critical distance with a straightforward impromptu finesse. Apart from early Meryl Streep, the actor whose style hers most resembles is an unlikely one: Orson Welles.
Like Welles, you feel that Moore’s acting is always stylized, that she’s describing a performance as much as giving one–or, at times, telling you what the performance would be like if she were actually to give it. At the same time, this intellectualism can collapse on a dime into emotional starkness, as it could sometimes with Welles. It is this balancing act that makes both so fascinating to watch.
Consider, for instance, the final close-ups of Far from Heaven–which, in time, will be as famous as the breathtaking close-ups of Barbara Stanwyck at the end of Stella Dallas. We see Moore as an actress, thinking about each of the emotions she’s projecting–as we never do with Stanwyck–yet that awareness never blocks the feeling, not once.
This blending of intellect with emotion is very similar to what Haynes does as a director. It’s why Moore is as perfect for Haynes’ movies as Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, for different reasons, were for Sirk’s. It’s no small part of what makes Far from Heaven a masterpiece.