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Melodrama Not Dead!



*Far from Heaven (PG-13)
Focus Films

By now you've heard that Far from Heaven is Todd Haynes' homage to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas. If you've never seen Wind in the Willows or Imitation of Life, their social commentary disguised in sentimentality is well worth your time.

Haynes does not engage in "retro" camp, nor is the film's historicity its main selling point. Certainly the 1950s mystique as an epoch of happy homemakers and supine Negroes had been shattered in film and literature long before Haynes entered the scene. What makes this film so wonderful is the way it tackles enduring taboos surrounding race and sexuality without preaching -- and the captivating performance of Julianne Moore.

It remains a sad Hollywood fact that quality melodrama is rarely able to crawl out from the "chick flick" ghetto. Perhaps this is because most of these emotional stunt films do little more than tell yet another moving tale of two lifelong friends who when not dispensing teary-eyed hugs defy the patriarchy, inspire a generation and die at the end.

No one dies in Far from Heaven, though its characters endure enough trauma for several lifetimes. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and dapper husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) are living a bourgeois fairy tale with their two, aw-shucks kids, colored maid (Viola Davis) and requisite colonial in the Hartford suburbs. Cathy is radiant and cozy in her role of dutiful homemaker and wife until the faade is annihilated when she discovers her husband getting his freak on with another man.

So determined are Cathy and Frank to maintain their respectability that they proceed, in the fashion of the time, to handle the indiscretion through a psychiatrist. However, Frank's deprogramming sessions serve only to further alienate him from his wife and family. He says he's determined to "beat this thing" but the hard road to heterosexuality turns him into a monster.

Meanwhile, Cathy finds herself drawn to the assured sympathy of her black gardener, Dennis Haysbert. Cathy's naivete and unintentional condescension towards him comes through though she's never condemned for it. But when the two are spotted in public by a wicked gossip from Cathy's elite coterie, she watches helpless and horrified as her warm world quickly ices over.

Haynes is to be commended for not doing what most white directors do in race films: anguish over and apologize for white guilt. Cathy Whitaker is no civil rights martyr; she's on the verge of joining the NAACP, but never quite goes through with it. When faced with a choice between racial justice and her social standing, she does what most white people of her time and class would do and terminates her friendship with Haysbert.

While Quaid is adequate as a tortured closet homo trying his best to lead the life of Ward Cleaver, Far from Heaven is clearly Moore's showcase. She captures an astonishing range of emotions, from the serenely bashful elegance of a middle-class homemaker to the lonely resolution of a newly singled mom.

The degree to which Haynes privileges emotions, without obfuscating politics, is something other directors might emulate. If this were an Oliver Stone or Spike Lee joint, the condemnations would be savagely redundant, the undertones nonexistent and the soundtrack exhausting.

Similar to his 1994 hit Safe, Haynes sustains an omnipresent sense of dread. Even during the film's tragic denouement, one still gets the sense that something even worse might be waiting to pounce on poor Cathy Whitaker. Far from Heaven offers little by way of comfort or resolution, but its potent dose of honesty is its greatest redemption.

-- John Dicker

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