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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Far From Heaven (2002)



Reviews and Comments

Todd Haynes has created possibly the most beautiful film of 2002 with Far From Heaven, which resembles what a 1957 Douglas Sirk melodrama would look like if it could have gotten away with addressing some topics taboo at the time. It's an interesting experiment: Far From Heaven resembles a 1957 movie not just in its look (its cinematography, stylized acting, and everything right down to the bold, flowery title script and a diagonal credit list, although I suppose the diagonal credit list technically belongs in the beginning and a vertical list at the end) and sound (50s slang and an Elmer Bernstein score that sounds like one he might have unearthed from the early part of his career) but in its social values as well. The movie and its characters have the understanding of the subject matter that was common in the 1950s, not what is accepted today.

All this aside, it's still a great story, a sincere story devoid of the irony we embrace today to protect us from the vulnerability we feel at strong emotions. And it's told in such a beautifully cinematic way, too, with the composition of nearly every frame reinforcing the themes and forces at play.

The film review stops here, but I can't stop writing yet: the very nature of this movie begs us to reflect upon changing times and shifting tides of perception. The two main issues addressed by the film are interracial romance and homosexuality, both dealt with in an extra-marital context. The film makes no suggestion whatsoever about whether social attitudes about these topics have progressed or regressed in the last fifty years; in keeping with what it is, it lacks the scope of knowledge to make a call like that at all. But let's face it: this is not a movie made in the 1950s. This is a movie made in 2002, and so even if the film does not ask us moral questions, the fact of its existence does.

The assumption of modern sensibilities is to claim that our present times, in which we have learned that love is good and the freedom to love whom we please is precious, is an unqualified progression. It is the arrogance of all historical ages to assume it is more enlightened than any age before it -- that moral questions that have eluded generations now at last have definitive answers. So strongly do we feel about this that I'm sure many will call me evil to suggest that in some respects Far From Heaven depicts more moral social values. There's nothing wrong with interracial romance, and I don't know what reason besides simple prejudice anyone would have for condemning it. But is homosexuality the same sort of thing? I disagree with that for moral reasons grounded in religion, though I do not at all condone the oppression of those who practice homosexuality -- on the contrary, love thy neighbor, as it were. I don't state these opinions to preach but rather to reflect on how they impact my perception of the film. In keeping with the times, the characters of the film universally disdain homosexuality, including the homosexuals themselves, feeling it to be an unnatural and dirty lifestyle. "I know it's wrong because it makes me feel despicable," says one. Conventional wisdom today suggests that these feelings of guilt are born by the disapproval of a prejudiced society. What if it's the other way around, that a lack of guilt is born by the vehemence of a permissive society?

Less controversially, the increasingly casual attitudes society has toward marriage do not seem to me to be "progress." This theme is less pronounced in Far From Heaven, but it does subtly convey stricter attitudes about marriage than we hold to today. We treat marriage like a mutual agreement we can bail out of when it becomes inconvenient. But what are marriage vows if not the promise to abide with someone and love that person forever? Love is an action, not a feeling, and marriage is meaningless if it only holds so long as feelings stay in line. That said, there is little denying that feelings so often do not stay in line. While the definitive exploration of this subject remains David Lean's Brief Encounter, this is also something explored beautifully in Far From Heaven. It's not just the taboos of interracial romance and homosexuality that the characters are up against but also their own honor regarding their marriage vows -- and, a related but wholly separate matter, maintaining a respectable public image in a gossip-prone society that expects intact marriages and other appearances of moral correctness, both appropriate and inappropriate.

Wrapping this back to the film, it is a great virtue of Far From Heaven that it does not delve into the moral quandaries I have explored here. It makes us think about them simply by telling an earnest, human story from a completely different perspective from what we're used to seeing. And, as I say, it's a powerful story with a great understanding of human nature in its own right. And a visual feast. And cinematic art. And...but you get the idea.