This essay on Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven (2002) was written by Pauline Lampert, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Far from Heaven will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, September 21. Free admission!
By Pauline Lampert
The title sequence for Todd Haynes’ 2002 film, Far From Heaven, mirrors that of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows to such an extent that one might assume the film that follows is a faithful remake of Sirk’s original masterpiece. While not identical, the rhythms and imagery of both sequences feature obvious similarities. They each have cameras craning down between tableaus of suburban pastoralism, replete with autumn leaves and quaint city squares, until they eventually rest on the facade of a single family home. The similarity in the films titles, announced in arresting 1950s-style-typeface, draw further comparisons and hint at the films’ parallel narrative trajectories. Both tell the story of a middle-aged housewife who falls in love with a man that the community deems unworthy, and is faced with either letting go of her chance at happiness or giving up her position in suburban paradise.
In All That Heaven Allows the feather-ruffling “forbidden love” is between a lonely widow, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), and her strapping young gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Far From Heaven, on other hand, features an interracial romance between an unhappily married housewife, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), and her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). The premise bears enough resemblance that Far From Heaven is often understood as a “retelling” of All That Heaven Allows. However, that classification oversimplifies Haynes larger project. While Far From Heaven certainly pays homage to All That Heaven Allows, it does not just shoehorn a contemporary social issue into a readymade narrative structure. Rather, Far From Heaven adopts traits from a variety of melodramas, including the Max Ophüls drama The Reckless Moment (1949), and both Sirk's 1959 and John M. Stahl's 1934 versions of Imitation of Life, creating an amalgam of different conventions of the genre.
Prior to making Far From Heaven, Haynes was best known for his association with the New Queer Cinema movement of the late-1980s/90s. Haynes, who majored in semiotics in undergrad at Brown University, got his start in low-budget, experimental productions where he combined his interest in film and linguistics to explore the constructs of cinematic language. His first major work is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) in which he reenacts the life and career of Karen Carpenter using a combination of documentary footage, miniatures, and Barbie Dolls. Given his background in D.I.Y. filmmaking techniques, Haynes might not seem the obvious choice to recreate the Technicolor splendor of a 1950s melodrama. However, he readily took to the formalism of the Sirkian style and proved the ideal person to bridge the gulf between the intellectualism of art cinema and the demonstrative emotional content of the so-called “weepie.”
While it may not be obvious upon first glance, roots of Far From Heaven can be found in some of Haynes’ earliest work. The bricolage style of Haynes’ Superstar is worlds away from the gloss and glamour of Far From Heaven’s Hollywood production, but the aim of both projects is very similar: to create entirely manufactured worlds, and to use the artifice as a means of exploring the genuine emotionalism of the films’ themes.
In a 2002 interview with Indiewire, Haynes discusses his fondness for creating these erzatz spaces as means of exploring the emotional terrain of his characters. He says the cinematic language of the Sirkian melodrama “embodies more potential for emotional feeling than anything that mimics what we think of as reality.” In Haynes’ hands, Far From Heaven becomes a study of surfaces and the way that the artificial sonic and visual textures of melodramas are able to convey the interiority of the characters. All the formal elements of the film, including the Elmer Bernstein score, and the brightly colored lighting, work in unison to create a bold expressive palate. For every scene, Haynes and his cinematographer Ed Lachman designed color charts that were specifically calibrated to convey the emotional tenor of the moment.
One of the primary and most obvious aspects of the filmic language that Haynes is manipulating is the dialogue. The script makes unironic use of 1950s slang and shorthand, and the actors perform in such a way to augment the mannerisms of their performances. Julianne Moore doesn’t so much speak her lines, but intone them—delivering them in a cheerful sing-songy rhythm which both recreates the vocal patterns of the era and disguises the reserves of frustration and sadness at the core of her character.
Despite the obvious artifice of the form, Haynes doesn’t provide any emotional remove. The audience is asked to accept the outdated mode of filmmaking, and to let the expressivity of the form work its magic. The result is a compounding of the resonance of every aspect of drama. We are made extra uneasy at the very obvious power-imbalance between the wealthy white figures in the movie and their limited interactions with people of color. This is made particularly apparent in scenes between Cathy and her maid (future Oscar winner, Viola Davis), which is marked by a stilted politeness, despite their desires for a genuine connection.The stylization also serves to underscore when things are amiss in Cathy’s world. For instance, there is a deliberate, but subtle, break from the Production Code milieu when, during the first third of the movie, Cathy’s husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) drops an “f-bomb.” This moment of emotional violence is made all the more shocking by its fracturing of established dialogue patterns.
But of course the artifice’s primary function is to heighten the romantic drama between Cathy and Raymond--this is a melodrama, after all. The experiment at the heart of Far From Heaven shows that while the oppressive social forces at play may alter and shift, the underlying emotions of forbidden romance will always resonate. With this project, Haynes proved that postmodern pastiche can be just as heart-wrenching as any 1950s Hollywood film, showing once and for all that the road to heaven is fraught for everyone, of every generation, and audiences who care to accompany these characters on their journeys would do well to pack a hanky.