Like most students, I have a love-hate relationship with my program. There are times when I really do not want to watch a film, but am required to engage in dialogue about the film in class… so my options are limited. The times when I love my field of study occur when I am introduced to a film for the first time. In the case of my melodrama course, I had never seen Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002). We watched FFH in response to the Douglas Sirk film All That Heaven Allows (1955) to compare and contrast the Sirkian influence on a postmodern melodrama. Please allow me to gush over Far from Heaven and convince you to add it to your “must watch” list!
First, I’ll give a little back story to the Sirk film. All That Heaven Allows is visually stunning. Sirk’s use of colour creates such a rich, idyllic setting for the characters and for the audience to feast their eyes upon. Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is struggling with the death of her husband and her eventual love affair with a younger man (played by the charming Rock Hudson) throughout the film. Although the colours are inviting, they are distinctly used for classifying the mood and the tone of each scene — while guiding attention visually, it guides attention emotionally, as well. The irony in Sirk’s film is the distance audience members feel from the characters, namely Cary, through Sirk’s divisive cinematography. The characters are isolated and therefore the spectator is isolated, yet somehow emotionally connected to the ideals of a melodrama. Theoretically, the spectator relates to her sense of loss, her failure as a mother figure, but there is no deeper connection to Cary’s character.
Todd Haynes uses much of the same techniques in Far from Heaven that Sirk uses for the All That Heaven Allows. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is not a widow, but rather a homemaker struggling to keep her relationship alive with her husband who, spoiler, privately grapples with homosexuality in a 1950s cookie-cutter town. Cathy befriends a man of colour, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert, the Allstate guy!), and must confront the racial tensions that exist in her social circles. Julianne Moore’s style of acting is purposefully bland and alienating while Haynes use of colour emphasizes the mood and tone. He uses similar patterns of enclosing the actors and actresses to detail their alienation within the narrative.
I think Far From Heaven is a beautiful film for more than just its references to Sirk. Perhaps those references enhance its deeper meaning. Cary’s issue of being an older woman interested in a younger man in All That Heaven Allows seems irrelevant in our culture. Todd Haynes updates the story’s historical relevance to suit the genuine issues of the 1950s regarding race and class… and advances the meaning by including same-sex attraction to confront current issues of social justice. Just as the meaning of melodrama changes over the years, our sensitivities readjust. Douglas Sirk’s style through colour and distanciation proves to be a timeless technique because audiences are required to remove themselves from the escapism and acknowledge the more profound matters at hand.
If you haven’t seen Far From Heaven, I highly recommend it!