Almost heaven

Far From Heaven finds fresh truths in '50s-style melodrama

While other culture-surfers seem content to mine the '50s for irony value, avant-garde humanist Todd Haynes makes his Eisenhower America a gut-churning ground zero for the same fears of social exclusion and conformity that haunt our own age. In Haynes' hands, the America of Far From Heaven is both a nostalgia-buff's comforting Never-neverland and a bell jar of deforming insecurity for picture-perfect housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore).

Referencing her role as another domestic appliance in Haynes' Safe, Moore is a placid, dutiful wife and mother of two small children. Cathy is torn between the suburban comfort of Hartford, Conn., in 1957 and deeper, existential aches, like the tug of the eternal she feels when she looks at a Joan Miro painting.

When Cathy's executive husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) discovers he is gay, Cathy's orderly world of car pools and cocktail parties is in alterably shaken. In the typically denial-based world of classic melodrama, Cathy is tossed a bone, only to have it yanked away when happiness comes too close. Cathy develops an affection for her sensitive gardener (Dennis Haysbert), who also loves modern art and whose earthiness counters the margarine superficiality of Cathy's world. But that gardener also happens to be black, and Hartford is a tongue-wagging town — liberal, but not that liberal. The heaven of the film's title proves as elusive as promised.

Far From Heaven takes place in a molten spectacle of fall colors where each leaf looks individually painted by an overeager set designer. That seasonal change also provided the melancholy backdrop to Far From Heaven's inspiration, 1955's All That Heaven Allows, and echoes the similar molting of the storyline, of a life change that carries the promise of blazing forests and a new life in the gardener's arms, but turns bitter cold.

Haynes' inspiration for Far From Heaven, which is as much a feat of set design as emotional investment, was the master of these irresolvable wars between propriety and passion, Douglas Sirk. In '50s melodramas like All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, Sirk peeled back the perfect veneer of sunken living rooms and American country-club complacency to reveal a profound malaise. Sirk's films, once viewed as low-brow, weepy trash but resurrected by film scholars of the '70s as subversive treasures, treated alcoholism, classism, racism, miscegenation, impotency and many an unhappiness with no name. Sirk anticipated subsequent critiques of consumerism and Betty Friedan-defined female-entrapment and showed how a life spent following the rules could still result in an existential unhappiness.

Haynes' Far From Heaven asserts that we have not really abandoned the social ills of the '50s. Interracial love affairs are still problematic, and homosexuality can still lead to the kind of ostracism and pain the film shows. Haynes is that rarest of creatures — a theory-head with a tender heart — who never plays the retro ambience for cheap laughs or irony value. Instead he embraces it wholeheartedly, much in the same way he bought into the frantic sexual crushes and edge-of-the-earth teen agonies of his meta-rock opera Velvet Goldmine.

There are moments in Far From Heaven when Haynes' Imitation of Sirk is flawless. Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg evoke not only the outrageously color-drunk Technicolor ambiance, but also the aquarium entrapment of Sirk's oppressively perfect worlds. Haynes' replication of the waxwork prettiness of Sirk's actors is likewise on the money. Quaid, looking like the green-lit, blandly handsome cover of a pulp novel, plays a self-conscious riff on Sirk's favorite cryptic fella, the nancy boy-trapped inside a hetero-hunk, Rock Hudson.

But most importantly, Haynes captures the unique spirit Sirk brought to the disparaged genre of the melodrama, often pooh-poohed as a "women's" form for its obsession with "trivial" matters of love and family, hearth and home. Sirk — and Haynes — show a deep respect for how home is the ultimate battlefield, where every wobbly injustice in a corrupt social system is supported, and where women are always the biggest casualties.

As in Safe, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine, Haynes is enthralled with underdogs and victims. A trendier director might have focused on Frank's sexual awakening, but Haynes' sympathies are with the woman left behind when her husband slithers off to his new life. Moore cements us painfully to her experience with her ethereal, decent and china-doll-breakable quality. Haynes uses the deceptively conventional trappings of one of Hollywood's proudest genres to make Far From Heaven an unforgettably troubling expression of female loneliness.