Far from Heaven

Doubts about the relationship between artifice and truth have followed me through multiple viewings of Far From Heaven, yet each time I’ve seen it I’ve found it more moving, not less. I’ve come to realize that my suspicions about Haynes’s ambiguous relation to the period may have as much to do with my own confusion about this material as with his. I’m prepared to believe that his relationship to the material has at least as much emotional and political authenticity as Sirk’s ever did. And I’m touched not so much by the unlikely proximity of kitsch and truth… as by the truth that’s found within the kitsch, at the end of a long train of thought and emotion that began with falsity.

– Jonathan Rosenbaum (1)

It might seem strange to say this but in reviewing Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002) I almost wish that I were not so familiar with Douglas Sirk’s oeuvre. Far From Heaven is a recreation of Sirk’s social ‘melodrama’ All that Heaven Allows (1955) but it also references much of Sirk’s other work, specifically Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1958). Knowing Haynes’ previous work and having intentionally not read any of the reviews, I sat through my first viewing with some reserve founded on a deep love of Sirk and a level of anxiety that I would be disappointed by Haynes’ kitsch, contemporary reinterpretation. Although spellbound by Haynes’ extraordinary rendition of Sirk’s autumn palette and the direct quotations of some of his thematic concerns and mise en scène, the anxiety about Haynes’ intentions—a fear about his use of parody and affectedness—was reinforced by the mannered performances until almost three quarters of the way through the film. Then there is a moment where this film seems to break the boundaries of its excessive artifice: emotion, honest and pain well from this scene. It is 1957 and Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a wealthy middle-class housewife whose suburban life is crumbling around her, stands with her African American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) outside a theatre on a street in small town Hartford, Connecticut. She has fallen in love with Raymond but due to social pressures she has come to tell him that she can no longer see him. As she turns to leave, Raymond places his hand on her arm and says her name. From across the street, a white man in a suit yells: “You boy! Hands off.” Until this moment, Cathy has seemed like a mannequin: her heavily made-up face a mask; her coiffured hair a helmet like wig; her padded hips accentuated by full pleated skirts suggestive of an engorged fertility symbol; her conversation—sing-song twittering. But at this point she turns to Raymond, her fine skin visible—shadowy smudges under her eyes—a small and tragic figure, she looks up at Raymond and says: “You’re so beautiful”. As she hurries away, the camera stays with the tall, solid figure of Raymond, pain etched across his face, and it is true—he is beautiful.

I have bothered to recount this moment in length because it placed me in a different frame of reference for the rest of this film and for a repeat viewing. Like Jonathan Rosenbaum, my ambiguous feelings about this film, although not appeased, have something to do with the “unlikely proximity of kitsch and truth”, the revelation being that Haynes does in fact treat this material with sincerity. Amy Taubin quoting Haynes who says: “I wanted to make a film that makes you just weep”, also notes “indeed he has although you won’t weep as convulsively as you might in some of Sirk’s films”. (2) I cannot go this far but I can say that this film through its exploration of suffocating social restraints retains the desperation we find in Sirk’s films. And this desperation is intimately tied to a deep concern with the crippling damage that social structures and power relations inflict on human beings by enforcing the repression of passion, desire and creativity.

The “remake” is an economically viable and popular form of contemporary filmmaking. However, Haynes’ film is a singular case; it literally recasts the style of Sirk’s ironic filmic representation of ’50s “small town America”. Far from Heaven recreates Sirk’s image of suburbia as a world of brittle, surface perfection and of cold, blue-tinged interiors. We find the same kind of surveillance and restraint maintained in town gossip and social clubs, and we also find a world surrounded by but often oblivious to the lushness and seasonal variation of the nature world of trees and woods that is just outside every door, or a short drive away. A major difference in the way the mise en scène recreates, supports and develops the thematic concerns is that in Sirk’s films the woods are always calling whereas in Far From Heaven they are picture perfect but there is no chance of going “wild”.

All that Heaven Allows

Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows is about Carey Scott (Jane Wyman) a wealthy widow who, much to the horror of her grown children and society’s coteries falls in love with her gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). Ron is an individual and a leader, emblematic of the New England Transcendental movement. He is unaffected by the town’s malicious gossip and rigid social structures for he “marches to his own beat” and is true to himself. Yet he gives up some of this masculine principle and builds a home for Carey that is made with beauty and with love. Carey can almost take being rejected by her social set but her children bully and emotionally black-mail her with threats about status quo, tradition, obligation and her dead husband’s memory. They claim that they are being ostracised because of her relationship. Carey can’t bear to think she is causing them pain nor can she stand their rejection, so she breaks up with Ron. Then her children get married, find jobs, and she is left aimless and alone. She gets sick from lack of sex, human contact and love until finally she goes to Ron but, at his door, her courage fails her and she turns and goes home. Ron is out in his natural world but he sees her from a cliff top. He calls her name, she doesn’t hear, and then he has a terrible accident. In the conclusion of the film Carey comes to look after her crippled gardener in the home he made for her with love. It is a bittersweet ending—so much wasted time and pain—and there is no assurance the relationship will work. Ron is hurt badly but at least now together they can look out their window on a world that’s something like Walden’s Pond.

The crane shot surveying the small town, the bird’s-eye view, the tree foliage changing from the colours of autumn to the bare branches of winter, Elmer Bernstein’s classic, romantic soundtrack, the cursive style of the title and credits that seem to float across the screen: from the beginning of Far From Heaven we are visually immersed in a Sirkian drama but the stultifying social forces explored in this film involve the issues of race and homosexuality. Cathy, the housewife, is married to Frank (Dennis Quaid), a successful sales executive. Together they have two young children. Cathy lives a glossy life with tailored, colour co-ordinated clothes, matching modern house, and structured social engagements. Yet her two children seem superfluous, as if there to justify her existence or fill her time with driving schedules, activities and meals. She is also immediately characterised as slightly different—“liberal”—specifically due to her kindness to “Negroes”. But things on the home front quickly begin to disintegrate as soon as we first meet Frank who she has had to pick up from the police station. It’s never clearly stated but we think he’s been drinking and has had some kind of car accident. Frank is hard faced, immaculate and buttoned down; he heads off to work everyday maintaining a perfectly controlled front but inside and at home he’s falling apart. Frank is homosexual and at night, when he tells his wife he’s at work, he’s trawling clubs for illicit affairs. One night Cathy finds him in his office in an embrace with another man: when he finally comes home, he finds her sitting in the dark. She can’t understand, he desperately tries to explain; he agrees to see a doctor. True to its era, the cure is barbaric and it doesn’t work. Frank’s behaviour becomes more nasty and erratic. In the meantime, Cathy finds solace with her gardener, a widower with a young daughter. Raymond is the one person she can talk to and eventually she falls in love. But gossip, social rejection and her husband’s outrage lead to her telling Raymond she can no longer see him. Then her world falls apart when Frank reveals that, for the first time in his life, he’s fallen in love. The next thing we know he’s ringing about an appointment for their divorce. The camera reveals that he is in a hotel room where his young male lover waits on the bed. Now single, Cathy seeks out Raymond only to find that his African American world is just as bigoted about interracial relationships as her own. Rocks are being thrown through Raymond’s window and his business has gone to ruin. He decides to do what he believes is best for his daughter and leave Hartford. Cathy says she wants to visit him but Raymond just doesn¹t have the courage for it; he’s already seen the “sparks fly”. The last we see of Cathy is her pulling up at the train station. Leaving her children in the car, she stands on the platform, fingers partially raised in a wave, soundless words being mouthed, as Raymond, in mirror response, watches her from the step of his departing train.

Earlier I referred to Sirk’s films as social ‘melodramas’, which is how they are frequently described. Yet Sirk’s work is generally more subversive than the form suggests. The intense emotions and violent appeals are all there but the causes are never just social, the events sometimes more akin to tragedy yet with smouldering embers of hope. What makes Sirk’s films so heartfelt is the way in which, in a glossy hyper real world, he deals with the interrelation of social structures and pressures and the inner life of human beings. What Sirk’s films continuously recant is what Rainer Werner Fassbinder captured in the title of his 1971 remake of All that Heaven Allows – that fear eats the soul (Angst essen Seele auf). Fassbinder’s remake is about a doomed love affair between Mira, an ageing German cleaner and Ali, a young Moroccan immigrant worker and the racial prejudice and hypocrisy they suffer. I always think of this film as a love letter to Sirk because of the way it so powerfully and tenderly reanimates that interweaving of the social and the personal.

Far From Heaven

My ambiguous feelings about Far From Heaven are in some ways related to a failure to express not so much the interweaving of the social and the personal but the passions and desires of individual characters. The characters in this film seem to oscillate around each other but never actually engage. Their isolation is obviously intentional and in some situations effective yet, except for a few incidences like the one I described earlier, I never empathised with Cathy. The continued maintenance of her rigid performance and her endearing smiles are too contrived. Not for a moment do I believe that her response to her husband’s first visit to the doctor to cure his homosexuality would be mindless chatter. Controlled walk, a harsh, lined face reddened by clotted anger, Quaid is wonderful as Frank. At work he performs his role, in the doctor’s office he strains to maintain control, while at home he alternately withdraws, explodes and weeps. Drunk after a cocktail party, he turns nasty after a failed attempt at having sex with his wife and hits her. His anger is ugly, his remorse believable. Frank, in effect, takes up a similar character’s journey as that of Carey from All that Heaven Allows. He struggles but breaks with social limits, ultimately rejecting them and changing his horizons. On one level the film maintains the context of the ’50s era. We hear the doctor describe homosexuality as a disease and then list the horrors of the cure. We watch Frank’s escalating behaviour as he tries to repress his desires. Yet ultimately he bravely chooses to leave his wife and family and live with the man with whom he is in love. The film is not simplistic here as the only time we see Frank with his lover is in a hotel room when he talks to Cathy on the phone. His business has gone to ruin and he tells Cathy that there won’t be much money. The room is dark but lit by a lamp and all the curtains are drawn—perfect for passion or keeping the world out. We feel within the constraints of the film, his life will be veiled, difficult but true.

Haysbert as Raymond plays his role similarly to Rock Hudson. There is a calm and ponderous element to his performance but he is also full of humour and warmth. When Cathy tells him that she wonders what it would be like to be the only one of a kind in a room, Raymond replies that he’ll take her to his world for lunch. They arrive at a place that from the exterior looks like a diner but, incongruously, inside it is more like a nightclub. The African American clientele stare at them and a man asks Raymond what he thinks he’s doing. In this film, African American society is portrayed as a lot less uptight but the societal restraints about appropriate behaviour are just as powerful as in Cathy’s world. But Raymond continues to see Cathy and it is only when his daughter is attacked by young white boys because her father has a “white girlfriend” that he decides to leave town.

Taubin has noted that of the three main characters, this film “positions the female as most oppressed”. (3) Cathy has no choices, her husband leaves her, her social group rejects her, and her best girlfriend dumps her and says she is a liar. She offers Raymond love and passion but is rejected. She longingly looks at young lovers but Raymond and her never have sex. In Sirk’s films the outcome is never simple, more often than not it’s part happy ending-part tragedy, but for women there is a space in which to express themselves and have passion, desire and love. We might not see it on the screen but we all know that in All that Heaven Allows Carey spends a night of bliss with Ron.

While thinking about these issues, a friend alerted me to an interview by Akin Ojumu with Dennis Haysbert in The Age. Their comments helped to solidify some of my feelings about this film. Haysbert discusses the “chaste” relationship between himself and Julianne Moore in the film. Although it is in keeping with the era of the film, he “believes it says something about Hollywood’s apparent double standards regarding interracial sex”. (4) Haysbert says:

In Monster’s Ball (starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton) you see them having full-on passionate sex, whereas here you don’t even get to see them holding hands. I… don’t agree with that. I’m really tired of seeing it done just one way… The only thing I can think is the white establishment is threatened by that. They’re threatened by black male/white female relationships and passion being shown on screen. (5)

Ojumu also notes in his article that it’s no secret that in Hollywood “men fare better than women as they age”. (6) Is Hollywood also threatened by older women’s passion and desire? Haynes’ homosexual character rejects social restraints, breaks the boundaries of his world and chooses desire and love—although it is never suggested that it is simple or easy. Neither his African American male character nor his heterosexual female character has this kind of complexity. They are not allowed to express this kind of rage, passion, or freedom of spirit.

Taubin says of this film:

Just as Safe was a response to the AIDS crisis in which the term AIDS went unmentioned, Far From Heaven is a furious denunciation of the return to the rampant power of the military-industrial complex and its fat-cat frontmen, hawking their medicine show elixir of patriotism, religion, and family values, the side effects of which are anxiety, suspicion and full-blown paranoia. (7)

I’m not sure that this film is so obviously meant to be a clear denunciation of the “rampant power of the military-industrial complex” but we should ask ourselves why make a film like this, here and now? It is worth considering here also the difficulties that Philip Noyce had with the more explicit The Quiet American (2002). Numerous writers have quoted Fassbinder on Sirk in relation to this film but where I find the greatest resonance here is when Fassbinder, after seeing All that Heaven Allows, says, “small town America is the last place in the world I would want to go.” (8) In Haynes’ recreation it is an awfully long way from paradise.

Endnotes

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Magnificent Repression”, Chicago Reader, http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/2002/1102/021122.html.
  2. Amy Taubin, “In Every Dream Home”, Film Comment, 38:5, September-October 2002, p. 22.
  3. Taubin, 2002, p. 26.
  4. Akin Ojumu, “Success, Coloured by Sex”, The Age, A2 Saturday February 22 2003, p 5.
  5. Dennis Haysbert quoted by Akin Ojumu, “Success, Coloured by Sex”, The Age, A2 Saturday February 22 2003, p 5.
  6. Ojumu, 2003, p 5.
  7. Taubin, 2002, p. 26.
  8. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Fassbinder on Sirk” Film Comment, 6. November-December 1975, p. 22.

About The Author

Gabrielle Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Cinema & Media Studies program at La Trobe University in Australia. Her research areas include screen violence, phenomenology, film and philosophy, and æsthetics. She is the author of This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, and has contributed chapters to the anthologies The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand and Super/Heroes.