FAR FROM HEAVEN

Directed by Todd Haynes. USA/France. 2002.


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In Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), a wealthy widow (Jane Wyman) has a romantic entanglement with her gardener (Rock Hudson).  In Todd Haynes’ sort-of-remake Far From Heaven (2002), set in 1957-58, the wealthy Connecticut housewife Cathy (Julianne Moore) becomes romantically attracted to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), while her husband (Dennis  Quaid) reveals himself to be gay.

Haynes’ film could be seen as a cynical postmodern comment on all those “women’s pictures” made by Sirk and (up to a point) Max Ophuls in the 1940s and 1950s. However, unlike a film such as Gary Ross’ unpleasant Pleasantville (1998), which invites us to sneer and scoff at the supposed inferiorities of 1950s America, Far From Heaven immerses us lovingly in that world of middle-class immaculateness.  We can, if we wish, take it on a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” basis, a stunningly-designed melodrama with a Brief Encounter ending, about a woman trying to hide her unhappiness with a permanent smile.

However, it certainly enriches our viewing if we are familiar with Sirk’s best-known films, which also include Written on the Wind (1956), which was the inspiration for TV’s Dallas, and Imitation of Life (1959), and indeed with 1950s Hollywood cinema generally (now, there’s something that was certainly better than today’s equivalent!).  For one thing, Far From Heaven is very deliberately made in the style of  that cinema, with scenes linked by dissolves instead of cuts, a lush score (by Elmer Bernstein) instead of rock music, larger-than-life colour photography (by Ed Lachman), and (what to me was quite a jolt) the words THE END appearing on the screen as the camera soars up into the trees.  Needless to say, THE END is followed by the obligatory several minutes of credits.  It is also refreshing to have a modern American film where every word of dialogue can be easily understood by the British ear, and where every other sentence is not punctuated by that horrible phrase “Oh my Gaad!”

Haynes’ film could not have been made in the 1950s, however, because of its treatment of the themes. Homosexuality could only have been elliptically hinted at then, while the inter-racial romance, however chaste (as this one is), would have been equally taboo on the screen.  Interestingly, the latter seems far more “shocking” than the former to the worthy citizens of Hertford, Connecticut, in the film.  Cathy, it should be noted, is regarded as a “liberal” who supports the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at a time when the notorious Governor Faubus reigned in Alabama.  Another detail which would never have got past the 1950s Hollywood censors is the single use of the “f-word”.

The central question I have about this  exquisite-to-watch film is: how truthful is it?  Does it represent how things actually were at that time and in that place?  Or does it merely represent how things were then being portrayed in movies, which, subject to the qualifications in the previous paragraph, it certainly does?  Todd Haynes was born in 1961, so he has no direct memory of the time.  I was around in 1957, but not in America, so am unqualified to give an authoritative answer.  The veteran critic Philip French, who did live in America then, claims that it is spot on, but he is referring specifically to the surface appearance of things (clothes, houses, etc.), and not to the attitudes of the people.  The not-quite-so-veteran critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who lived in Alabama which was (and is) worlds away from Connecticut, also finds it fairly authentic, apart from taking great exception to a scene where Cathy’s gardener takes her to a black bar, complete with dance band, in the afternoon; this is “simply ridiculous”.

Only someone who lived in New England at the time is properly qualified to comment on the authenticity of the attitudes of the characters, not so much the central ones as the good townsfolk who tut-tut at seeing, for example, Cathy briefly put her hand on this educated black man’s shoulder.  My immediate reaction was one of questioning; Connecticut was always, I believe, a “liberal” state, and somehow I feel that the film’s characters are to some extent caricatures, as far as their attitudes to race are concerned.  I also feel that Haysbert’s  business-management-qualified modern-art-appreciating gardener is just a little “too good to be true”, rather like some of Sidney Poitier’s later roles.  Perhaps I’m wrong.

Be that as it may, Far From Heaven is thoroughly recommended, not least for the superb acting from all concerned.  Just one final question occurs to me though: would the story have been any different had All That Heaven Allows not starred Rock Hudson?
 

Alan Pavelin

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