FAR FROM HEAVEN written and directed by Todd Haynes, produced by Christine Vachon and Jody Patton, with Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson. 107 minutes. A Focus production. An Odeon release. Opens Friday (November 8). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
todd haynes is a stylistic cha-meleon. Just look at the empty Modernist frames of Safe, the parodic soup of Poison, the 70s grit and glitter of Velvet Goldmine.His new film, Far From Heaven, perched somewhere between precise parody and purposeful homage, represents a very strange attempt to swallow whole the style of another filmmaker.
With its flawless autumnal colours and conspicuous art direction, it's an uncredited remake of Douglas Sirk's 1955 film All That Heaven Allows, one of a series of melodramas Sirk crafted for Universal, including Written On The Wind, Magnificent Obsession, Imitation Of Life and The Tarnished Angels. We might note, too, that it's the second uncredited remake of the film, after Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul.
A huge influence on Fassbinder, Sirk's films enjoyed a great critical revival in the 70s, part of an intensive critical re-examination of the melodrama as a form. That revival seemed in remission, despite Criterion editions of Written On The Wind and All That Heaven Allows and a promised Universal special edition of Imitation Of Life in the new year.
The basic plot involves a Connecticut matron -- Jane Wyman, widowed in the original; Julianne Moore, married to a man (Dennis Quaid) with a dark sexual secret in the new one -- who implausibly becomes romantically entangled with her gardener. This is unlikely in the original because Rock Hudson is much younger and not part of the country club set, and in the remake because Dennis Haysbert is black.
I can't for the life of me figure out the point of the movie. It's like watching something written and shot in ancient Aramaic. Haynes is working in a dead cinematic language, the studio-bound perfection of Universal in the late 50s. It's not just that nobody makes films like this any more, but that nobody but hardcore film geeks -- really eccentric geeks at that -- watches films like this any more.
Haynes approaches the film's "issues," gender and race, aesthetically, as they might have been dealt with in the 50s, rather than realistically. Sirk, too, dealt with both subjects obliquely, in Robert Stack's character in Written On The Wind and in the idea of a black character "passing" for white in Imitation Of Life, itself a remake of a 30s film.
Haynes doesn't seem to be treating the material ironically, except insofar as Sirk's style, with its Brechtian pauses and use of reflecting surfaces to comment on the action, is itself ironic. Fassbinder did the same thing -- though only rarely, as in Chinese Roulette, did he go for the full Sirkian style. Of course, his budgets wouldn't have allowed it either.
Julianne Moore's performance is stunning. She's utterly absorbed the restrained anguish inherent in the style of the period, and she certainly does not treat the material ironically, which is the secret, of course, to the style.
The cast cannot appear to be in on the joke. If, indeed, it is a joke.
Far From Heaven is a perversely fascinating film, but not a great one. It is to Haynes's career what Psycho is to Gus Van Sant's, a bizarre stylistic dead end. firstname.lastname@example.org