At the beginning of “Far From Heaven,” the camera drifts downward toward the tidy streets of Hartford, through a screen of blood-red maple leaves. It is autumn 1957, and like the New England foliage, the people of Hartford are chilled into vivid, lurid color by the frost of middle-class, midcentury propriety. The bright clothes they wear, the baroque interiors of their houses, the jarring pastel tones of their enormous cars all stand in contrast to the constriction of their emotional lives and the narrow range of expression their bizarre, disconcertingly familiar world allows.
The visual and aural texture of Todd Haynes’s ardent and intelligent new film provides a kind of subliminal commentary on its story of thwarted desire and soul-killing pretense. All of the wild, unruly feeling that the characters must repress pops to life around them, in every detail of Mark Friedberg’s production design, Edward Lachman’s painterly cinematography, Sandy Powell’s delectable costumes and, above all, the great Elmer Bernstein’s sobbing, swooping score.
Mr. Bernstein’s music, which plays beneath nearly every scene, puts the melody in this melodrama, and Mr. Haynes, fading breathlessly from one scene to the next, reaches moments of operatic intensity that seem disproportionate to his tale of genteel bigotry and marital dysfunction. But that’s the point of the movie, and the source of its troubling beauty. It suggests that the 50’s facade of normalcy – represented by the routinized, orderly lives of Frank and Cathy Whitaker (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) – concealed both incendiary passions and a ruthless social machinery devoted to their suppression.
Of course, this is hardly a new idea; it was, indeed, part of the era’s understanding of itself. “Far From Heaven,” which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, is both a movie about the 50’s and a tribute to some of the great movies of the 50’s, in particular the Technicolor melodramas that Douglas Sirk made in collaboration with the producer Ross Hunter for Universal Pictures. (It happens that Focus Features, the distributor of Mr. Haynes’s movie, is Universal’s newly reorganized art-film subsidiary.)
Those pictures – including “Magnificent Obsession,” “Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life” and “All That Heaven Allows” – were popular with audiences in their day, but they were regarded with condescension by critics and other sophisticates suspicious of their soapy, maudlin extravagance. As was the case with so much postwar American popular culture, the subtlety and complexity of Sirk’s art – in particular his subversive knack for tucking social criticism and psychological insight into stories governed by the constraints of the Production Code and the conventions of the tear-jerker – were appreciated only in retrospect, in part through Sirk’s influence on later filmmakers, notably Ranier Werner Fassbinder.
Like Fassbinder, Mr. Haynes, whose previous features are “Poison,” “Safe” and “The Velvet Goldmine,” is interested both in updating Sirk and in reproducing his fluid, incandescent style. He wants, in effect, to appeal to that part of the audience that is flattered by knowing, analytical entertainments and, at the same time, to seduce us out of our intellectual cocoon into a state of pure, unbridled feeling – to bridge the gap between the Eisenhower-era housewives who were Sirk’s original audience and the aesthetes who secured his belated entry into the auteurist pantheon.
This is a remarkable ambition, but also an eminently sensible one: the union of art and sensation, intellect and feeling, mass appeal and aesthetic refinement is something the movies are uniquely able to promise, and occasionally, when a filmmaker possesses the right mixture of calculation and compassion, able to deliver.
For a director who got his start working with Barbie dolls (in “Superstar,” his harrowing short film about the life of Karen Carpenter), Mr. Haynes is fiercely devoted to his actors. Ms. Moore, who played the unhappy suburban housewife in “Safe,” here plays a heartbreaking variation on the theme. At first, Cathy is almost a caricature of domestic fulfillment, driving her daughter home from ballet class in a sky-blue station wagon, planning her annual cocktail party with her best friend, Eleanor (the splendidly wicked Patricia Clarkson), and welcoming a reporter and a photographer from the local society pages into her meticulously decorated home.
Copyright The New York Times Company