Todd Haynes' melodrama "Far From Heaven" opens at the height of a New England autumn when the trees are ablaze in yellow, orange and a red so vivid it looks like blood. Set in Connecticut in the late 1950s, the film takes place in a small town where people go about their business quietly, including the business of dying inside, none more beautifully than Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), whose world disintegrates after she discovers her husband in the arms of another man.
A model mother to two children and a dutiful wife to television sales executive Frank (Dennis Quaid), Cathy is a frequent subject of adoration in the society pages of her local newspaper. Her translucent white skin gleams as brightly as her immaculate kitchen. Her closest friend is her neighbor Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson, in a wonderfully lethal performance), but her closest companion is Sybil (Viola Davis), a black woman who works as the family's domestic and with whom she has developed harmonious communion. It seems perfect until Cathy discovers Frank's infidelity. Stunned, she deals with the revelation the only way she knows how, which is to keep smiling. Even when Frank smacks her across the face, all she can do is reassure him that everything is fine -- just before politely asking if he could bring her some ice for the swelling.
What makes the exchange wrenching isn't just the violence that Frank commits but the soul-crushing violence he inflicts on himself the moment he strikes Cathy, turning himself into her victimizer. Tortured by his desires, Frank has taken to furtive late-night cruising, following men down alleys and into local dives. The character's agony is palpable, understandable given the time and the place, but there is more at stake than his private anguish. As with director Douglas Sirk before him, Haynes is using melodrama to uncover what lies beneath the surface of things. He's exposing the cracks in the American ideal and tracing them to the margins, from clandestine gay bars to suburban homes where black waiters serve whites who never see them and from whose shadows a gardener named Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) emerges to change Cathy's life.
In his greatest melodramas, Sirk explored bourgeois repression so mummifying he would cram the frame with flowers, as if to say people's homes were like mausoleums. Reviewers often sneered at the movies as "two-hankie weepies," the sort made for "sob sisters," language that suggested that what got under their skin wasn't the extravagance of the on-screen emotion but the reaction of the mostly female audience. Although Sirk's films were rediscovered by academics during the 1970s, mainstream audiences and critics seem to appreciate them for their dubious camp value and the fact that a handful starred Rock Hudson, Hollywood's most famously closeted male actor.
Haynes borrows from several of Sirk's films, but his biggest inspiration is Sirk's 1955 "All That Heaven Allows," in which Jane Wyman plays a widow who begins a scandalous romance with her younger gardener, a Thoreau-reading hunk played by Hudson. Haynes follows the film's arc in broad outline, tweaking its style and substance to put them into play against contemporary expectations. At first glance, the two features appear like visual echoes -- a pale blue-and-white station wagon, even the gardener's red plaid shirt look the same -- except that in the Haynes film it all seems brighter, more luxuriant. In Sirk's world a slash of bold color could express a world of repressed feeling. The characters in "Far From Heaven" are held similarly in check by their Eisenhower moment, but because we know how to fill in the ellipses Haynes shades everything bolder, laying color upon color.
When Cathy and her friends stand huddled together in her heavily treed frontyard, the yellow ocher and copper of the women's dresses are a blur with their billowing hair and the leafy iridescence behind them. The women look like advertisement models for some mythic Arcadia (or perhaps next year's Buick), while the leaves are so drenched with color it's as if they had been individually dipped in paint, then hung on the trees like ornaments. Sometime later, after the wind has carried Cathy's scarf from her grasp and delivered it into Raymond's, the shimmering lilac in his dark hands doesn't just suggest; it screams.
As the story unfolds, the gloss begins to rub off and the colors mute. The season changes, characters reach toward one another across ever-widening chasms and Cathy struggles to hang onto her smile even as her world crumbles. The film's three leads are extraordinary, but what Moore does with her role is so beyond the parameters of what we call great acting that it nearly defies categorization. Although it's the least naturalistic of the performances because the character is an artificial construction, yet another imitation of life, it's also the most devastating. Quaid strips away his charm to show us Frank's struggle under his mask, baring the man beneath. In contrast, Raymond's realness is imprinted on his very skin: As he says to Cathy, he doesn't have a choice but to live in the reality that's been forced on him. As in each of Haynes' previous films, the men and women in "Far From Heaven" carry their identities much as beetles carry their carapaces, protected from the world but also shut away from it.
It's in Cathy's fight to escape that prison, in her struggle between the woman she's been and the woman she yearns to become, that Moore breaks our hearts. Most filmmakers are no longer interested in making us cry; they want us to shiver, to shake, to jump in our seats or watch impassively as another one bites the dust. Have we become afraid to cry? Haynes knows that the impossible world he's created will inspire giggles, but he's savvy enough to have orchestrated the precise moment in "Far From Heaven" when the laughter stops dead. He's an independent filmmaker who loves Hollywood, and with this feature he's grasped that no matter how righteous a film's politics, there's no more powerful way to seduce an audience than to sweep it away in a flood of tears.
Not long into "Far From Heaven" there's a scene in which Cathy waits for Frank outside a hospital. In desperation, the couple has visited a psychiatrist in hopes of finding a "treatment." Politely shooed aside by the doctor, Cathy stands in front of the hospital under an overcast sky. She's tugging at her gloves and coat when the sun emerges, bathing her in light. It's an audacious image -- the suburban wife and mother flooded with the sort of celestial radiance that illuminates paintings of martyrs and stars from Hollywood's golden age -- and as with the rest of this gloriously generous film, there isn't a suggestion of cynicism gilding the rapture. Then the film cuts away from Cathy, and we discover that it's more than the sun that's brightening her face: She's watching a boy and a girl kiss on a nearby park bench.
The idyll lasts only seconds. By the time Haynes returns to Cathy, still standing alone and still waiting, the light has gone out and she's staring into space. The tragedy of the moment is as piercing as her desire. It's as if she were looking for something but can't bear to remember how it went missing or why. All she wants is what everyone wants -- to hold and be held, to love and be loved -- and although there's nothing simpler, neither is there anything more profound. Haynes knows this deeply, which is why Cathy may be far from heaven, but never once is she out of the director's embrace.
'Far From Heaven'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language.
Times guidelines: Adult themes and intense emotional interactions: Bring tissues.
Julianne Moore ... Cathy WhitakerDennis Quaid ... Frank WhitakerDennis Haysbert ... Raymond DeaganPatricia Clarkson ... Eleanor FineViola Davis ... Sybil
A Focus Features and Vulcan Productions presentation of a Killer Films/John Wells/Section Eight production, released by Focus Features. Writer and director Todd Haynes. Producers Christine Vachon and Jody Patton. Director of photography Edward Lachman. Editor James Lyons. Costume designer Sandy Powell. Music Elmer Bernstein. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In limited release.