Beyond the Surface

Todd Haynes’s masterful pastiche of 1950s melodramas, Far From Heaven, is fixated on notions of facades and truth. Awash with lush autumnal colours and backed by a sweeping musical score, the film leverages the exaggerated style of social melodramas by Douglas Sirk, specifically All That Heaven Allows (which also has a woman fall in love with her gardener), to go deeper into the social commentary that often coloured Sirk’s work. This isn’t the first time Haynes has repurposed the artistic style of an era – Carol adopts the look of 1950s photography to explore repressed desires and longing.

The truth that Far From Heaven illustrates is the homophobia, racism and segregation of the same era, with lives that did not fit into the template of the white nuclear family being suppressed. Typical melodrama plots are replaced with themes that might have been considered more taboo, as the affluent housewife Cathy (Julianne Moore) falls in love with her black gardener Raymond (a gentle, soulful Dennis Haybert). At the same time, both she and her husband struggle with the discovery of his homosexuality. Both end up riddled with shame and fear from breaking social expectations, coming into conflict with each other and their friends as they attempt to maintain the illusion of perfection.

The film subverts expectations early on, opening with overwrought music and a garish title, suggesting a more winking, playful riff on melodrama. It is soon clear that this isn’t the case. Cutesy language and chirpy neighbourly affection soon gives way to hateful, withering looks and later hate speech, as gossip circles become tinged with casual utterances of the word “negro.”

Haynes’s look beyond the surface begins with the first appearance of Raymond – the immediate response to which is a panicked question from one of the neighbours on whether or not they should call the police. His presence is often seen as an invasion, whether he’s just doing his job or minding his own business in an art gallery. The segregation in Far From Heaven appears as an unspoken rule, presented with a matter-of-factness that makes moments like where Raymond is “the only one in the room” feel extremely tense.

Compared with something like Detroit, a film which uses a realist style and was marketed as “exposing the truth”, Far From Heaven explores white supremacy and segregation with far more precision and poignancy. It’s a strong reminder that “realism” doesn’t inherently mean that something is more truthful.

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Kambole Campbell

1. Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven. Courtesy of IMDB.