Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Far From Heaven

Green is the dominant color of Todd Haynes' revisionist melodrama. Green, the color of envy, nature, money and hope, all of which bubble under the surface of a quiet Connecticut suburb. through the director's carefully chosen color palettes. Said palettes perfectly evoke the look of Douglas Sirk's vivid Technicolor melodramas, with period sets to boot. Yes, just as Martin Scorsese strove to make New York, New York not only work as a musical set in the '40s and '50s but to look like it was made in classic Hollywood, Far From Heaven might very well have worked as a completely straight-faced depiction of the irony and banality of the suburban nightmare that became the American ideal. But Haynes takes it one step further by openly addressing issues that seem contemporary yet were every bit as present then, only buried beneath hardened exteriors both physical (makeup and clothes, consumerism) and emotional (denial).

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) has such barriers; she lives in a lush manor tended by the family maid (Viola Davis), giving her all the free time needed to becoming the perfect trophy wife. She speaks the sort of ridiculous, pretentious dialogue that was present in all those old classics, that Sirk only had to spin slightly to place its absurdity on full display. Even her children speak with in such haughty tones, telling "mother" how "delightful" their school day was. She stands slightly outside the town gossip circle, yet they co-opt her perfection to share the glory and victory of her photo-ops in the local newspaper.

It's as good as life can conceivably be in postwar America, though she never sees her poor, hard-working husband (Dennis Quaid) because of his heavy workload. At least that's the reason he gives her; one night Cathy checks up on her husband just to say hello, only to find him in the arms of another man. Now, finding out your husband is gay and you're simply his beard is hard on even the most open-minded person today, so Cathy's utter shock is understandable. She handles herself with surprising calm, however, pledging to stand by her husband, who volunteers to see a therapist to determine what's "wrong" with him. "I'm gonna beat this," he assures his shrink, who lists his client some figures on the successful conversion rates back to heterosexuality.

As the revelation puts strain on the relationship, Cathy only compounds the issue by striking up a friendship with the son of the family's dead gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Raymond is soft-spoken and well-read: when Cathy spots him at the art gallery, he's the only one who can talk about the artists with any convincing sense of authority. Cathy's notions of her own open-mindedness reveal themselves as inflated when she awkwardly tries to assure him, "I'm not prejudiced. My husband and I have always believed in equal rights for the Negro and support the N.A.A.C.P." Raymond overlooks her nervousness, and soon they become the only genuine friends in a town where everything is planned for social perception.

Soon, everyone is town is wagging their tongues over the matter, especially after Cathy goes to the black part of town to eat lunch with Raymond. Frank, who spends most of the film in an alcoholic stupor over his inner torment, lashes out at his wife when news gets back to him; in a deliciously ironic rant, he accuses her of threatening to ruin his reputation and tear the family apart, even as he's contemplating divorce to run off with a man.

The relationship issues of the leads slowly tear them apart as the town around them loses itself to speculation and rumor. Cathy assures her closest friend that nothing illicit has happened between her and Raymond, but Mona simply responds that she is acting as if something did. Eventually, the town turns on Cathy and Raymond outright, and a happy ending quickly becomes nothing more than a pipe dream.

Far From Heaven is clearly crafted to appeal to the most discerning film geeks with its flawless reconstruction of '50s drama, from the stylized dialogue to the set and costume design and even the score from classic film composer Elmer Bernstein. Yet those attributes also make it palatable to anyone. The actors are uniformly excellent, with Moore giving the best performance of her career, and they make the characters work beyond the dark satire of the script. For my money, Far From Heaven is one of the finest films of the decade, and a career highlight for everyone involved.

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