Far From Heaven: Excavating Paradise
Peter Conklin and Dan Friedman

It is fall in New England. The leaves are glowing russet, red, and gold over a bucolic Hartford, Connecticut. The picture-perfect wife drives home with the groceries. Her husband will be home soon so that they can attend a dinner party at a friend's house at eight o' clock "on the dot -- you know Frank!" But then the idyll ends -- slowly, gently, barely two minutes after the opening credits. The sunlight fades and there is no sign of Frank, who has been picked up by the Hartford police on suspicion of homosexual solicitation and begun his family's very own fall.

Todd Haynes' new film Far from Heaven moves from his 1995 dissection of 1980s west coast suburbia in Safe to an excavation of social mores of Connecticut in the 1950s. Another period film, although this time a full generation's distance from its subject, Far from Heaven is exquisitely crafted in Douglas Sirk's technicolour idiom. Haynes employed two consummate artists in Mark Friedberg, the production designer who designed Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, and Elmer Bernstein, the composer who has been creating masterpieces since Sirk's time, to provide him with the stylistic tools comparable to those Sirk exploited half a century ago.

Friedberg's luscious palette and Bernstein's subtle and beautifully nuanced soundtrack maintain the period charm, but the film resists any easy conformity to simple themes of cultural identity or political correctness, from either that era or our own. Haynes directs the actors through the shoals of intolerance with aching restraint. At the same time as he sets out to debunk the myths of a 1950s golden age, he pays homage to the often-overlooked complexities of its melodrama. David Thompson points out in his invaluable Dictionary of Film Biography that Sirk's seemingly quotidian suburban dramas didn't lack material; for Sirk style was the material. Haynes understands this point, conveying the constriction of the 1950s as much in the cut of Julianne Moore's dress as in the film's tragic plot.

Early in the film Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), a successful marketing director for a television manufacturer, walks into a gay bar and orders a drink. He is deeply unhappy, wrestling with a sexuality he despises. Such an event would be unremarkable in most current films, impossible in the films of the 1950s. This is the main stylistic turn of Haynes' film: to address those aspects of 1950s life that Sirk and his contemporaries could not show, but to do so in their own highly developed cinematic language.

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January 2003

jay's head
josh ring