Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Todd Haynes postmodern tearjerker

No doubt there are hipsters out there who will agree. We live in compulsively ironic times, when melodrama is derided, as Haynes readily admits, as a naive and dated form. "This is probably the most degraded form of narrative experience that you can pick for a contemporary audience," the writer/director says cheerfully. So all right—why melodrama now? But then, why not, if you see melodrama not as a genre but as an essential element of cinema, that great big drama queen that gives us back our lives, only plump with significance? When I was growing up in London, my mother and I pigged out on women's films, which we saw week after week on late-night television. (My mom, a lifelong career woman and nobody's victim on any front, lapped up the maternal self-sacrifice movies, which may augur well for the female audience's response to Far From Heaven.) Haynes doesn't recall seeing such films on the small screen. He describes himself, growing up in Encino in the '60s, as an art snob who hung out at LA's then-vibrant revival houses—the Nuart, the Lorena in Sherman Oaks and the Fox Venice (now a mini-mall)—sucking up Bergman. It wasn't until the 1970s, in the refined ether of the semiotics program at Brown University, where he met his longtime producer, Christine Vachon, that Haynes was exposed to the classic Hollywood film. From there, he carried melodramas around in his head, and in one way or another, they've informed all his feature films, from the Genet-inspired AIDS allegory Poison (1991) to Safe (1995), about a housewife who's allergic to the 20th century, to his brassy 1998 homage to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine.

If Encino alerted Haynes to the plight of the suburban mother (see Safe) and the '60s prepared him to become an activist, Brown turned him into an intellectual. (Still, Haynes' sentences pile up so many San Fernando "likes" and "totallys" that he sounds, adorably, like a Valley Girl channeling Roland Barthes.) In all his films, there's an ongoing conversation about the limits of representation and the dialogue between reality and artifice—which, in part, is what turns him on about Sirk. In his work, Sirk was far too passionate to be the ironist that revisionist film theorists now insist he was—and Haynes knows this. Still, the over-the-top staginess of Sirk's movies dares you to look beneath the surface composure, to move from Technicolor exteriors to noir interiors, to read between the lines and query the happy ending. This, too, is the source of Haynes' creative double vision. As in All That Heaven Allows, the exterior scenes in Far From Heaven (all shot in New Jersey) are a riot of autumnal colors, the interiors shrouded in shadow. "The amazing thing about autumn is just how artificial it looks," says Haynes. "But it's a natural phenomenon, the point where nature exceeds verisimilitude. And those gaps are so much what this movie is trying to bridge. Those exterior scenes look more fake than anything we did on a set."

Similarly, Haynes' screenplay has Moore, Quaid and Haysbert delivering their lines in the stilted, declamatory style of the '50s—you can't help but look beyond it and complete the thought with your own ideas and emotions. "The challenge for the actors is that the text demands they commit to the language in a very direct way," says Haynes. "It's all on the surface in a way that we're not accustomed to in our naturalistic codes of acting, where there's an attempt to distress the words and the surface of the composition, and that's what we think is real, those are the codes of reality." Melodrama's formalism, says Haynes, makes it so much richer and more telling than the current embodiment of the women's film—the television movie, with its facile psychologizing and compulsory redemption. "There's something really interesting about the fact that melodramas are pre-psychological," he says, "which has to do with what they don't articulate at the end." Far From Heaven is fiercely unredemptive, both the movie and its title provide a revealingly pessimistic variation on All That Heaven Allows, with its tacked-on happy ending. "If it were a TV movie," Haynes observes, "it would have to have a scene where Julianne's character comes home and says to her maid, 'You know, I've lived my whole life depending on men. Now I know that you can't, and I've learned a great deal even though it's been hard.' In melodrama, the characters are strangely mute—they don't articulate what they learn or see. And all of a sudden, there's this space where music fills in, or color, or camera movement. And you fill in, too."

You really do. Far From Heaven is not a campy movie. True, it has its ironies, but though you can read it ironically if you wish, Haynes' triumph is that it also plays beautifully straight. Irony may be the modernist liberation, but it's also an emotional cage, and I suspect that many of us are aching to suspend disbelief for a change. For all its formalist ambitions, you can lose yourself in the swoony sadness of the mother's story, experience the deliciously weepy rush of the victim, and salivate over the film's luscious look—from the production design, with its wildly operatic reds and oranges, to the lavish, satiny dresses nipped at the waist and billowing out into great hoops (check out the fabulous Patricia Clarkson's monumental French twist), to Elmer Bernstein's swelling, plaintive score, to Moore declaiming her lines in letter-perfect mimicry of the breathy Brahmin cadences affected by the diva actresses of the period. For all that Far From Heaven may be a movie for gay men and film literati, Haynes is eager to know how 15-year-old girls and 60-year-old women—to say nothing of the rest of us—will respond. "This film could so easily not have been emotionally enveloping for all the obvious reasons and could have been considered just an interesting stylistic experiment in reference to another period that would have intrigued an intellectual crowd," he says. "But at the most basic level, I wanted to make a movie that made people cry."

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