Far From Heaven

Far From Heaven (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Todd Haynes
viewed: 04/12/03

Todd Haynes’s homage to the 1950’s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, is an interesting cinematic experiment. In a sense, it bears some resemblance to Gus Van Sant’s 1998 grand homage of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film, Psycho. Van Sant took homage to an utterly “psycho”-tic level, in re-creating a nearly shot-for-shot remake of arguably one of the most recognizable films ever made. Haynes’ tribute is more of a melange of Sirk than re-make, but the film’s art design borrows heavily from its models as do many of the framings and narrative approach. Taken outside of such a tribute, the film would be utterly anachronistic to a modern audience unfamiliar with the films of Douglas Sirk.

Haynes’ film not only evokes a visual style and mise-en-scene of the classic American melodramas, but also imbues the narrative with the repressed restraint of the movies of that period. The “dramas” of Far From Heaven, about inter-racial romance and homosexuality, are far racier than the 1950’s would have allowed. Their treatment, however, is handled in the restrained and in-explicit manners of that time. The romance is chaste and the sexual interludes are far more implied than detailed as is like to be the case in a typical contemporary film. It’s an interesting conflict of the somewhat more edgy and modern with that of a period in which references to such “transgressive” subjects would not have been so clear-cut.

Sirk’s films are often considered subversive in their treatment of their bland American middle class worlds, loci of surface beauty, but perhaps troubled deeper within. Haynes’ position, commenting on a period explicitly located in the past, is informed by Sirk’s approach but seems easier.

Having heard a lot about this film before having seen it, I wondered how the film would be resolved. Given the subject matter and the probable adherence to the style of the period, happy endings seemed unlikely for the protagonists. I wondered how much Haynes would employ distancing devices or whether the film would be absolutely “true” to the style of the 1950’s. Really, the main point of disjuncture comes when Dennis Quaid’s character uses the word “fucking,” in expressing his stress over his “treatment” for his homosexuality. This is clearly not something one would find in a Douglas Sirk film.

The other thing that struck me was the use of oversaturated color in this film in attempt to mimic the look of Technicolor. At times, the effect is good, but it seemed to lack the true vibrance and artificiality of Technicolor. The art design seemed to try almost too hard to mimic its sense of the art design of the 1950’s Hollywood film. The art direction was almost iminently self-aware, something that seemed to place itself at the foreground of the film, at least in my experience of it.

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