In Every Dream Home a Heartache
Todd Haynes Gets Melodramatic by Revisiting Sirk's Works
Nearly every review of writer/director Todd Haynes' new Far From Heaven so far has compared it to two prior works: Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). For once, consensus has nothing to do with intellectual laziness or plagiarism. Far From Heaven demands comparison to these films because Haynes clearly directed his latest work with intentional reverence for both.
Throughout the 1950s, Sirk specialized in melodramas aimed primarily at audiences of married women. Typically in this genre, a housewife would encounter a handsome man who rekindled the romantic spark long departed from her life. But her newfound vivacity invariably ended soon enough: If married, the woman would see the error of her ways and return to her domestic master; if widowed, her mysterious stranger might suffer a horrible fate, or turn out to be a total cad. This genre flourished under the watchful eye of Hollywood's Production Code, which for decades forbade any content suggesting that adultery might somehow be pleasurable. Quite literally, any character guilty of adultery had to face the consequences by the film's end--if not death, then certainly a lifetime of unhappiness.
Sirk's work transcends this genre in several ways. He mined the melodrama for maximum emotional impact, making audiences truly feel his heroines' pangs of loneliness. He frequently posited social ostracism as the mechanism that bound women to housework, subtly criticizing American conformity. And he purposefully undermined his own supposedly happy endings, surreptitiously arguing that a woman enslaved to domesticity risked destroying her individuality.
Far From Heaven is, in essence, a remake of All That Heaven Allows. In Sirk's film, a widow (Jane Wyman) becomes enamored of her young, rugged gardener (Rock Hudson), until the disapproval of her children and community takes its toll. In Far From Heaven, which is set in 1957, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) finds meaning in raising her children, providing for businessman husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), and entertaining Hartford, Conn.'s conservative Caucasian upper crust. Cathy even stands by Frank as he begins to act out his long-closeted homosexual fantasies, but she simultaneously develops a friendship--platonic but sexually tense--with her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Petty gossip and intrigue soon sours Cathy's reputation in town, and tragedy strikes.
All That Heaven Allows was loosely remade by German auteur Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in which an elderly woman falls for an immigrant laborer. In other films, such as Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder also applied melodramatic principles to homosexual story lines. By modernizing his settings, Fassbinder was able to zero in on several social problems that Sirk's films insinuated--particularly racism and homophobia.
Haynes, too, deals openly with racism and homophobia but handles them in the stylized manner of a 1950s melodrama director. Frank's homosexual urges are uncontrollable sexual demons that demand immediate psychiatric treatment. Overt racism occasionally erupts but more often ensconces itself in the ways that everyone--even Cathy--identifies others primarily by their ethnicity.
Haynes has ideological reasons for this approach. While his film boasts little overt comic relief, it often inspires laughs through period dialogue that now sounds offensive, dated by society's progress in battling racism, sexism, and homophobia. But Haynes' film also calls into question how much progress we've actually made: It's still rare to see filmed romances between blacks and whites; it's equally rare, and inevitably greeted with groans from the audience, to see men embrace on-screen.
But Haynes' primary objective with Far From Heaven seems to be artistic. Aesthetically, his accomplishment is astounding; with its elegant performances, vivid autumnal colors, and note-perfect Elmer Bernstein score, the film feels less like a product of our times than it does an unearthed and restored Sirk classic. Even as it introduces modern content, these anachronisms feel more like unobtrusive flourishes than violations.
Yet for some Haynes fans, Far From Heaven may be frustrating. With films like Poison and Safe, Haynes established himself as an innovator in modern narrative film. In comparison, Far From Heaven's sumptuous mimicry seems conservative; unlike Fassbinder, Haynes replicates rather than reinvents. Still, Haynes has met his goal masterfully. Viewers interested in formalist experiments--as well as those able to emotionally, uncynically invest themselves in an old-fashioned, three-tissue tearjerker--will find Far From Heaven quite rewarding.