Technicolor Magic

'Far From Heaven' uses color and emotion to create a compelling period piece.

Critics remain split on the work of Douglas Sirk, the German-born director whose bizarrely mannered films, with their manipulatively emotive music and almost painfully chromatic colors, pretty much invented the American soap opera. On the surface, they're incredibly shallow and obvious stories about The Human Condition.

Underneath, well, actually, still on the surface, they're experiments in what can be done in combining some of the oddest techniques of the German Expressionists with the more naturalistic styles and stories of American films. While his Technicolor movies, with their sudden close-ups and blaring trumpets, pretty much catch the style of all that's worst about TV melodramas, they also invented all that's worst about TV melodramas, and that's something of an accomplishment.

Todd Haynes, in remaking Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, pays eerie homage to this master of schmaltz, crafting a period piece that, instead of looking like a representation of its period (America in the late '50s) looks like something that's an artifact of the artificial filmmaking of that period.

Instead of using Technicolor, Haynes has all of his characters dress in Technicolor tones. He cast Julianne Moore in the lead because, with her china-white skin and flame-red hair, she may be the only human being who is naturally Technicolored.

Haynes sets his film mostly in the Connecticut autumn, when the leaves automatically look like something out of a big-budget color picture from the '50s. The effect is truly bizarre: Only the skin tones seem natural, everything else looks like it was hand-painted with a Crayola paint set.

The characters' hair is of the heavily sculpted sort common in films of the era, and their mannerisms are those of the most mannered of uptight, white, New England suburbanites. Further, the music is a loving recreation of the cheesiest stuff from the era, with composer Elmer Bernstein (Magnificient Seven, Ten Commandments, Man With The Golden Arm) going back to his roots to show exactly why and how a raft of violins meant danger and a trio of trumpets was the only way to show surprise.

All of this is so visually and sonically engaging, so mystifying in its recreation of a time that never existed except on celluloid, that it would still be a great film if the story consisted of nothing more than the characters reading from a phone book.

In spite of this, Haynes also went to the trouble of including a plot with his film. Clearly, he is not familiar with the modern mode of filmmaking. What Haynes does is insert a few odd elements into Sirk's old story in order to come up with a film that uses its distancing techniques to comment on just how alien a culture 1950s America was.

Julianne Moore plays housewife Cathy Whitaker, whom the Hartford Social Register has just named "Mrs. Magnetotech," because her husband is the vice something-or-other of Hartford's Magnetotech corporation. Mrs. Whitaker, notes the paper, is also "kind to Negroes," something their noisy reporter notices when she sees Cathy actually talking to her gardener (cue dramatic music!)

The gardener is Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a business school graduate and owner of a small flower shop. He's just as oddly mannered as the white people in the film, and his character is perhaps even more artificial. He tends to announce pertinent facts about his life as though he were reading from his bio, and his calm, strong presence is just what Mrs. Whitaker needs at this difficult time in her life.

It seems that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is having feelings. Feelings, of course, are the bane of the 1950s suburbanite, but Frank Whitaker's feelings are the worst feelings that a Connecticut-dweller can have: They are feelings of love. Worse still, unmentionably worse, is that these feelings are not directed at someone whose official gender assignment is the opposite of Mr. Whitaker's. Mr. Whitaker, it seems, is one of them.

By making his settings, performances and costumes so other-worldy, and yet so familiar, Haynes is able to give these revelations an emotional punch that would be impossible in a film set in more modern times. Even a film set in a naturalistic 1950s would fail to capture the oddness of an era when simply talking to someone of another race was tantamount to riding around Washington D.C. with an "I Heart Al-Qaida" flag flying from the back of your camel.

It's a testament to Todd Haynes directorial skills that he manage to get Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and, in fact, the entire cast, to take on such a consistent set of gestures and tones. It's as though they all went to the same acting school in Timewarp, Wisconsin for a week in order to eliminate all traces of warmth from their performances.

As a result, when actual emotion breaks through the surface it's devastating. The slightest hint that someone might actually be feeling something seems like it could destroy every chromatically colored cloud in the sky, and the latter half of the film manages to be horribly compelling without ever dropping its sense of distance.

In many ways this film is most like Todd Haynes infamous directorial debut, Superstar, wherein he told the story of Karen Carpenter using only Barbie dolls. In both films the oddness of the staging at first seems funny. However, it quickly becomes clear that this effect is the story just as much as the script and plot. That kind of cohesion is rarely seen, and definitely worth seeking out.

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