Say what you will about writer-director Todd Haynes, but there’s no denying the man has a flair for the visual. His Safe, about a woman suffering from an environmental illness, unfolded against a perfectly drawn, clinically sterile background. And in Velvet Goldmine, Haynes recreated, with startling accuracy, the look, feel and sound of the Glam Rock era. But despite his ability to conjure stunning visuals for his films, Haynes has proven less adept as a storyteller. Pretty or not, his cinematic creations are often clear examples of style over substance.
His latest, Far From Heaven, remains true to form. An opulent homage to the domestic melodramas of the 1950s, it’s the kind of movie Douglas Sirk might have made, had he been allowed to show two men clenched in a passionate embrace. The story is classic Peyton Place, but it’s presented without a trace of irony. When loving wife and adoring mother Cathy (Julianne Moore) discovers her salesman husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) in the arms of another man, she seeks solace in the company of her black Gardner, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). As news of these shocking developments spreads throughout her whitebread community, Cathy finds her life disintegrating around her.
It takes a certain mindset to watch a movie set in the 1950s, a decade that has been reduced to little more than a cliché based on idealistic, suburban America. Recent films like Pleasantville have played upon those clichés, exaggerating them to the point of absurdity and then injecting them with a more modern, cynical sensibility. Far From Heaven avoids that tactic, instead maintaining an emotional integrity throughout. Like the classic films it emulates, it tackles some weighty issues: feminism, homosexuality and racism, taking full advantage of today’s comparative freedoms by depicting them much more explicitly.
More often than not, though, the story is overshadowed by the film’s awe-inspiring art direction. Bursting with Technicolor brilliance, every set, prop, and costume – down to the smallest detail – corresponds seamlessly to the films of a bygone era. The entire production is a glorious testament to the magnificent precision of a studio soundstage. But despite the dazzling eye candy, watching it is peculiarly unsatisfying. Like the exquisite confections lining the shelves of a patisserie, it’s beautiful to behold and initially quite pleasing. But before long, the sugar rush subsides, and you’re left with only a slight headache and an empty stomach.