Far from Heaven
Top Ten List: #8 of 2002 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #10 of 2002 (world premieres)
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Director: Todd Haynes. Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, Celia Weston, Betty Henritze, Michael Gaston, James Rebhorn, Jordan Puryear, Ryan Ward, Lindsay Andretta, Nicholas Joy, Mylika Davis, Barbara Garrick, Stevie Ray Dalllimore, June Squibb, Matt Malloy. Screenplay: Todd Haynes.

Photo © 2002 Focus Features
About half an hour into Far from Heaven, Ed Lachman's camera cranes up from the meticulous front lawn of a 1957 New England home and glides gracefully over the dormers and eaves of the roof. This shot retraces the flight path of a lavender scarf that, two short scenes ago, blew away from the neck of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), the "angel" of this particular house. Cathy now stands on her front walkway, gazing a little vacantly at the sky, wondering where her kerchief might have flown. She will soon find it—in fact, someone will give it back to her, but this brief, aerial interlude in Todd Haynes' brilliant melodrama is not just setting up a story event. It says everything about the sad, subtle calculations of Far from Heaven that, given the choice, the camera occupies not the point of view of Cathy, pining for a lost object, but of the vanished object itself—perhaps, of heaven—as it looks down on her. This angle connotes no condescension, simply the practical vantage of something permitted to rise while something else stays fixed in one place.

Does Cathy have a point of view? She must, although a crueler movie might try to deny it. Unfortunately, whatever perspective she occupies is typically defined by how automatically it projects itself into the sensations, demands, and judgments of everyone and everything around her: husbands, children, neighbors, parties, scarves. Cathy's preeminent mode in Far from Heaven is to look comely and put-together while characters and cameras retreat from her, and small windows of unimagined opportunity seal themselves as abruptly as they opened.

I saw Far from Heaven twice on the day it opened in my community, a place I'd describe as a post-hippie college town that votes Green, holds much more stock in education than in corporations, and manifests in all of its academic energy and small-business enterprise—including the non-profit cinemas where I saw the movie—the belief that life can be changed, ambitions achieved, and Fate demystified through intellect, cooperative effort, and imagination. Now into this environment wafts Todd Haynes' filmic vision of Eisenhower-era know-nothing affluence, a place and an age where a white woman's clunky revelation to a black gardener (indeed, "her" gardener, in the pervasive lingo of possession) that she and her husband "believe in equal rights for the Negro and support the NAACP" qualifies her as a liberal firecracker. Cathy is not above firing this gardener if neighborly murmurs reach a crescendo, and she armors herself for that inglorious occasion in a head scarf, a heavy overcoat, and white-rimmed sunglasses about twelve inches wide. If any audience were predestined to scoff at Cathy, even seethe at her and at the cultural assumptions that produce her, the filmgoers of Ithaca, New York, are probably just the bunch.

People do laugh at Far from Heaven, often with a tinge of knowing superiority. How, we marvel, did people ever live this way, internalize these ignorances, commit these faux pas? And look at their cinema! Who ever green-lighted those rear-projection screens in driving scenes, where landscapes don't quite move with the car, and where minding the road is an optional attitude? Haynes, Lachman, and the other cast and crew of Far from Heaven have nailed an exquisite, rib-tickling approximation of the greatest 1950s melodramas, reprising every aspect of color, costume, score, and sentiment that was always palpably false or overdrawn in a film like Magnificent Obsession or All That Heaven Allows. But Haynes, like Douglas Sirk before him, quells our arrogance with his sharp, obsessive interest in the patent falsities of culture, especially as mirrored in a genre he reveres too much to parody.

For the gleam of surfaces and the yearning of powerless characters are taken gravely seriously in Far from Heaven, and not just to the hackneyed extent of "revealing" that the aggressively advertised shine of America has always concealed grottier, guiltier realities. Though we are forever learning how many people still don't perceive the constructedness of such alleged "givens" as gender, race, sexuality, and national identity, nonetheless the discovery of these things as constructions is not in itself a stopping-point or a solution for change. Far from Heaven, like Sirk's movies, carries us far beyond such an endpoint by iterating even tougher axioms of social life. For example, the fact that one's world, one's appetites, even one's self are "constructions" does not deprive those entities of their inflexible power, since lives can be impaled on the most arbitrary beliefs and institutions. Moreover, it can be extremely difficult to forsake the luscious allure of wealth and beauty, even when we comprehend how fiercely they can limit us. And ultimately, in a world where "knowledge" comprises such grim appraisals of things near and dear, the choice not to know, to perform an innocence confusable with stupidity, is sadly but profoundly compelling.

And so, especially on a second viewing, we must be very careful in how we judge Cathy Whitaker; Haynes' deliberate invocations of Sirk foster this temperate climate, insuring that a first viewing of Far from Heaven feels already like a reconsideration. True, in our first impression, Cathy seems nearly overchallenged by the tasks of unloading groceries and drawing obedience from two pre-adolescent children. She has a maladroit way of addressing her maid Sybil (Viola Davis) in the third person, even in Sybil's presence, though Cathy would be sincerely horrified to have this pointed out to her. In a quietly telling moment, Cathy eagerly accepts a brochure from door-to-door NAACP ambassadors, but then is equally, unconsciously quick to pass the brochure into the hands of Sybil, herself African-American, who knows where to file it away in the house.

Ensuing scenes continue to undermine our sense of Cathy's sagacity. She obediently posts bail and retrieves her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), when the police haul him in on a loitering charge he insists is phony, though we suspect otherwise. Frank's chronic excuses for his late returns from "work" don't quite persuade us, either, especially after Haynes discloses—in one of the very few sequences that transpire away from Cathy—that Frank is fumbling toward an admission and an actualization of his homosexuality. In other words, we know before Cathy knows, which risks refracting harshly on our view of her. Similarly, we detect straight off that the gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) is a widower, and so we cringe as Cathy blurts out an inquiry about his wife, and again we appear quicker than she to divine how a nascent friendship with Raymond is likely to go over within the coterie of white Hartford homemakers (including can't-miss character actresses Patricia Clarkson and Celia Weston).

Cathy's gaffes and myopias all remind us why 1950s housewives are perennially derided, in art as in life, as dupes, blanks, and ciphers. However, the serene genius of Far from Heaven is to gradually expose how Cathy's Stepfordish affect is a rational and desperate reaction to systems of sexism and racism, ideologies and behavior patterns that love to assert as motivation some specious "natural passivity" of women. If the first third of Far from Heaven shows us how sheltered Cathy is from certain knowledges, the middle section exquisitely demonstrates that, in barely recognized ways, she is the most conscious of the three protagonists. Frank, after all, becomes a willing accomplice in the medical establishment's own antagonism toward him, and then he is all the more shattered when his illusions of "recovery" are dashed. He is also an entrenched racist, a captive to his hot, lashing temper, and a swift subscriber to gossip. Raymond seems like a wiser and more genial soul, but Cathy isn't wrong to detect a whiff of meanness when he chaperones her to a particular restaurant. Raymond also lacks, if not the degree of Cathy's suffering, then at least the scope of her own growing sense of how different phobias combine and reinforce each other. In a crucial dialogue outside a movie theater, Raymond exhorts Cathy to overlook superficial disparities in life, and it is she who trenchantly poses back, "Do you think we ever do see beyond the surface of things?" Raymond's only rejoinder is to quote the Bible—a meek riposte, in a film much more convinced of historical particularities than in transcendental moralities. If the closing third of Far from Heaven commences Cathy's reabsorption into routine and external reliance, the only reason is her utter lack of alternatives.

Cathy is never a heroine or an oracle, and Far from Heaven shows impressive restraint in denying the character any wild epiphanies or breakaway gestures. Contemporary audiences like their women like Erin Brockovich, brassy about their oppression, quick and feisty in kicking hegemony's ass. Cathy, by contrast, has barely an iconoclastic bone in her body. She rides through life on muted rails of intuition, morseling out little soupçons of subversion to herself, a sort of political anorexic: she might stir up a gallery opening by talking to a "Negro," but she darts out right afterward, back to the husband and family whose presence would surely have quashed the impulse in the first place. While standing in that gallery, Cathy demurs from specifying her pleasures in a Joan Miró painting, prefering to revel in its aura—what she calls "the feeling it gives." Life itself gives Cathy a feeling, and as Far from Heaven unfolds, the feeling is one of implacable, helpless compromise. Frank's and Raymond's plights are hardly to be romanticized, and Haynes' peculiar brand of ironic compassion embraces both men. But Cathy confronts a singularly bleak realization. Her tragedy is not that both men leave her, nor even the prejudicial circumstances that compel them to leave; the tragedy is that she, alone among this trio, has nowhere else to go. Surely she grasps this by around the movie's middle, and so her final, futile attempts to change her fate are not a fool's errand but a confirmation of guessed-at realities, a mad, uncynical attempt to see if she can race to the train station before the facts of the world set in there, too. The world, of course, wins.

Is there another working actress besides Julianne Moore who could match Cathy's blend of bravery and stillness, her distrust of high drama in a world of production design? Moore is far from reprising her role in Haynes' Safe, even if the homology in the names Carol White and Cathy Whitaker suggest at least a proximate connection. What links the parts is Moore's astonishing craft at telegraphing a character whose reflex, whose job, is to submerge herself into a uniquely overpowering domestic landscape. Moore has played volcanoes (in Magnolia) and near-mutes (in Cookie's Fortune), and throughout that range she has maintained an unparalleled knack for subliminal communication, as though she's acting with her irises. Her voice is a surprisingly pliable instrument—Carol and Cathy don't sound anything alike, even when calling their housekeepers—and she has mastered the predilection for non sequiturs and stiff or broken utterance that defines Haynes' screenwriting. We believe that Cathy might actually say a thing like, "It is not plausible for me to be friends with you." Her body is slyly artful in finding whatever line or comportment will perfect the framing of a shot, but Moore brings poignancy and force to that talent by not making it instinctive—pay attention to those half-seconds which the increasingly rattled Cathy requires before she hits her domestic marks.

The other actors are uniformly expert, with Haysbert and Clarkson contributing uncanny reprisals of the Rock Hudson and Agnes Moorehead personas from the Sirk films. Still, Moore garners even stronger support from the offscreen talent. Sandy Powell, the reigning queen of costume design, finds the perversity in beauty (or is it vice versa?) just as she did in Orlando, The Wings of the Dove, and The Butcher Boy. Frank looks natty and distinctive in a sea-green suit until we follow him into his office and realize he's the same moneyish color as the walls. Likewise, Cathy wears an overcoat that at one point makes her nearly invisible in front of a wall of marbled concrete. Elsewhere, her array of A-lines and flair for color is much more resplendent, though there is something melancholy about her propensity for reds and violets—she has a hard time breaking into the center of the rainbow, and her pallor only increases when her blouses start to glow. Similar paradoxes are installed within Elmer Bernstein's tremendous score, unabashedly romantic but almost haunting in its adherence to Cathy's moods, like a shadow that can't be shaken—except when it reaches ardent swells that Cathy herself must suppress.

Bernstein recalls his own film score from 1993's The Age of Innocence, and the link to Wharton is canny—Haynes, too, has revived a social idiom that is grossly misrepresented when described as demure, unconscious, or innocent. "Candid views are always the best," a journalist says to Cathy as her home is photographed; we snicker because nothing could be less candid than a pressed, upholstered, spotless living room like the Whitakers'. But does that mean we snicker at the proprietress? Far from Heaven, answering resoundingly in the negative, isn't just recuperating a woman or type of woman, but is reacquainting us with the coiled, unflashy intelligence of certain forms of representation. The "woman's picture" is a classification no one seems excited to reclaim, but what if All That Heaven Allows, and now Far from Heaven, are "women's pictures" because the women in them have the fullest sense of life, a grasp of their conditions that grows—albeit in fits and starts, and with proportional costs of disappointment—beyond what other characters experience or understand? The life of a woman is the engine by which these films dig into the workings of the world and expose the crippling grief, especially for women, associated with such discovery. Cathy Whitaker can't beat the world, she can only hope to match it. She is already an expert matcher, almost a reflexive one, but then she is inevitably reminded of the gross cunning of what she has synchronized herself into.

We, for our part, cannot help Cathy, but we can appreciate anew the impossibility of her position—now rendered with a scope and precision that makes her "victimhood" neither anecdotal nor natural, but polyvalent and political, and therefore profound. When Cathy crumples in tears near the movie's end, she does so on her bed. But wait—this is actually two single beds, pushed together with desperate symmetry, yet another hopeless feint at masking an alienation. Far from Heaven, by luxuriously mounting the delirious pleasure of the dream, is smartly devastating when it locates the fissures. Grade: A–

(in November 2002: A)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Julianne Moore
Best Original Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Best Cinematography: Ed Lachman
Best Original Score: Elmer Bernstein

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Julianne Moore
Best Supporting Actor: Dennis Quaid
Best Screenplay: Todd Haynes
Best Original Score: Elmer Bernstein

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Best Actress (Moore); Outstanding Individual Contribution (Lachman); SIGNIS Award (Honorable Mention)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress (Moore); Best Supporting Actor (Quaid); Best Cinematography
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress (Clarkson); Best Supporting Actor (Quaid); Best Cinematography
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actress (Moore; also cited for The Hours); Best Cinematography; Best Original Score
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Clarkson)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Cinematography
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Moore)
Satellite Awards: Best Picture, Drama; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor, Drama (Haysbert)

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