Heaven Sent

Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore Reopen Douglas Sirk's Melodrama Fakebook

"I really wanted people to cry," Todd Haynes says of his new movie, Far From Heaven, a domestic weepie set in 1957 Connecticut and swaddled in the Technicolor opulence of the period. From the delirious palette to the prim, italicized performances, Haynes's meta-melodrama (in theaters November 8) pays homage to German-born maestro Douglas Sirk. A Weimar stage director who emigrated to the States in 1940, Sirk went on to make a string of Brechtian soaps in Hollywood, wrapping up his film career as resident tearjerker at Universal Pictures. Resurrecting All That Heaven Allows (1955), Sirk's attack on bourgeois repression, and Imitation of Life (1959), his tempestuous saga of race and identity, Haynes revels in the ebullient artifice of the originals. Far From Heaven, pace Courtney Love, fakes it so fake it is beyond real.

There may be no filmmaker better equipped than Haynes to navigate a Sirkian simulacrum. Having cast a Barbie doll as an anorexic chanteuse (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), anatomized the existential panic of a blank-slate SoCal housewife (Safe), and wreaked semiotic havoc with glam rock's cut-and-paste identikit (Velvet Goldmine), he's well acquainted with the pleasures and perils of inauthenticity.

Far From Heaven doesn't remake the Sirk movies in question so much as direct their mirrored surfaces at each other—transposing signs, exposing subtexts, renewing resonances. As in All That Heaven Allows, a middle-class heroine scandalizes her community by getting too friendly with her gardener. But Haynes's ill-fated pair, Cathy (Safe star Julianne Moore) and Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), face a taboo more virulent than the age and class differences that keep the earlier film's Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson apart: Cathy is white, Raymond black. (The skin-color conundrum allows Haynes to acknowledge Imitation of Life as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, in which Sirk's most ardent acolyte updated All That Heaven Allows to '70s Germany as a tale of verboten interracial love.) Haynes engineers a further complication: Cathy's husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), is trying furtively to suppress his homosexual impulses—a twist that locks the three characters into what Haynes calls "this almost beautiful diagram of residual pain" (and effectively springs Rock Hudson from the celluloid closet). He explains, "There's not necessarily a bad or evil character, but when one of them steps toward their needs or desires, it ends up harming everybody in that tangle."

Artificial ingredients: Haynes and Moore cook up a Techni-color weepie.
photo: Ted Soqui
Artificial ingredients: Haynes and Moore cook up a Techni-color weepie.

Venturing into a gay bar, a black neighborhood, and even a therapy session, Far From Heaven makes explicit some of what was pointedly excluded in '50s melodramas. But Haynes says it was important not to create a sense of anachronistic rupture: "I think about [Chantal Akerman's] Jeanne Dielman, which is so much about the power of the small action. I was trying to do that with Safe—reduce the level of activity and crisis, so that smaller things would have a bigger impact. Before Safe becomes a film about illness, it's a film about a couch, or a film about the absolute blankness of the things that make up people's lives. With Far From Heaven, I set myself a similar challenge: How can you make the word fuck a shocking event again? It made sense to use that as an overall strategy, to keep everything at the minimum. It helped to balance out the grand themes."

Ironically, Haynes first thought of Far From Heaven as an attempt to work on a narrower canvas. "I said to myself after Velvet Goldmine, 'Dude, you don't have to put the universe into every movie.' Maybe it's OK to do a small domestic drama. But it ends up like, Race! Sexuality! Gender!"—albeit as configured by an alum of Brown's art and semiotics program. "I do believe in the limits of representation," he continues, "and I think they define all three themes. It became clear as I was writing the script that the themes of sexuality and race were counterbalances, with the woman as the force separating them. One was condemned to secrecy and the other to a public backdrop; one was buried within the domestic setting and the other was unavoidably visible and open to rampant projection."

He toyed with several scenarios involving race and sexuality and even considered a '50s gay Hollywood milieu, but never deviated from his goal of making a woman's picture. "Male homosexuality, even in the '50s, could enjoy a double standard over the role of a woman, who would still be harnessed with the responsibility of appearance and the household and the maintenance of traditional values."

Far From Heaven's flavor of brazen pastiche—at once nostalgic and defamiliarizing—suggests a late-night AMC marathon experienced through a hallucinatory fog. As Haynes puts it: "It doesn't flatter our collective idea of what reality is, based on these codes that we all agree on. There are no securing nods to how much more we know today." Eschewing the self-satisfied perspective of hindsight, the movie actually illustrates how little things have changed. Though Haynes briefly flirted with the idea of setting the story in the present, he says, "I thought it would be interesting to use the '50s as a metaphor for today, to ultimately draw questions back about contemporary society." He adds: "And I also couldn't resist the fabric and color of the '50s"—not least the richly complementary hues of All That Heaven Allows. "Visually, it's the most supple and subtle of the Sirk melodramas, and the most surprisingly expressionistic. You're astounded by how intensely the simple, quiet domestic themes are depicted."

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