It took its time getting here, but the best movie of the year has finally arrived. Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven is a throwback to the obsolete genre once called the “women’s picture”, and to the films of consummate melodramatist Douglas Sirk. Haynes uses the plot of Sirk’s great 1955 weepie All That Heaven Allows (wealthy widow Jane Wyman falls for her young gardener, Rock Hudson, exposing her community’s snobbery and viciousness) as an inspirational launchpad for his own story and has shot everything in the lush, aggressively designed, colour-coded, mirror-filled style that was Sirk’s hallmark.
Haynes also adds elements and taboo themes that couldn’t be dealt with in 1950s studio vehicles: interracial romance and homosexuality. Although he makes conscious reference to a particular style of film-making, he has made a movie that is entirely his own, with rapturous camerawork from Ed Lachman, a wall-to-wall score by Elmer Bernstein, and deep, richly legible emotions that eddy and swirl across his actors’ faces.
He has partly filtered All That Heaven Allows through the sensibility of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who remade it, in 1974, as Fear Eats the Soul. Fassbinder became good friends with the elderly Sirk in the early 1970s, and a conscious imitator of his directorial style. After falling under Sirk’s influence, he deployed a more mobile, expressive camera, grew ever more confident with colour, and filled his frames with multiple reflections.
In Fear Eats the Soul, he turned Sirk’s gardener into a Moroccan gastarbeiter (guestworker). Haynes in turn has essentially made Rock Hudson black, and given Jane Wyman a husband – a gay husband. Julianne Moore is Haynes’s Jane Wyman, and she and the cast excel at replicating the cleaner, more emotionally reticent, pre-Method style of studio acting.
It is 1957 and Cathy Whitaker’s orderly, unexamined suburban existence is up-ended when she discovers her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) in a homosexual embrace. Cathy seeks platonic solace from her sensitive black landscaper Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), but their relationship exposes the bigotry and wretched social outlook of her poisonous little town.
The central theme of All That Heaven Allows was: “To thine own self be true.” Cathy, Frank and Raymond are all emotionally destroyed by trying to do exactly that. No blood is spilled in Far from Heaven – but its emotional violence is devastating.
Sirk’s highly approachable and rewarding work is less well-known than it should be, although Far From Heaven will probably change that. His luxuriant adaptations of moralistic best-sellers by Lloyd C Douglas and Fannie Hurst are the work of the greatest Technicolor expres sionist of the late studio era, surpassing even Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray.
Of his contemporaries, perhaps only Alfred Hitchcock was working at a comparable level of stylistic richness and visual complexity. Even the titles seem drunk on their own grandeur: Magnificent Obsession, There’s Always Tomorrow, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life. Movies can’t possibly live up to such intoxicating names.
Oh, but they can. Sirk was probably the most intellectually formidable, culturally sophisticated and artistically gifted director ever to function successfully within the Hollywood studio system. A contemporary and intimate of Brecht, an early attendant of Einstein’s university lectures and a translator of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he had been interwar Germany’s most important stage director after Max Reinhardt. When, in the mid-30s, he started making movies at Berlin’s gigantic UFA studios – where the political pressures on a leftist with a Jewish wife were milder than in the theatre – his ravishing visual style was already fully formed.
Throughout the 1950s, Sirk repeatedly filled cinemas with the rustle of starchy linen and the muffling of housewives’ tears. For years, the standard perception of him was of a giant ghettoised within the confines of the women’s picture, toiling on overripe, ludicrous material that was beneath his considerable talents. A more complex assessment argues that Sirk self-consciously pushed every lighting cue and camera movement, every nuance of acting, and every tone in the Technicolor palette to the point where his style became avowedly self-satirising, thus producing an objective and partly surreptitious critique both of the material itself and of the soulless era in which it was produced.
Seldom has an artist in Hollywood expressed himself more fluidly or ecstatically than Sirk. His camera moves more smoothly and serenely than even that of Max Ophüls. His colours are as expressive as anything in Ray’s greatest work, and the performances he extracts from such undervalued actors as Hudson, Wyman, Agnes Moorehead and particularly his signature siren, Dorothy Malone, are as detailed and moving as anything in 1950s cinema.
It’s been suggested that Sirk had to smuggle his critical viewpoint past the studio heads, but this seems improbable. There is no subterfuge whatsoever in his scathing depictions of the suburban bourgeoisie, the feckless rich and the spiritual desolation of Eisenhower America.
His films don’t acquiesce on the surface and dissent in the details: the critique is right up there on the screen. And his romantic pessimism is stark and upfront: fate spares no one, love defeats us all, innocence is slaughtered, the good die young and the bad die last. Sirk believed in unhappy endings.
As does Haynes. Far From Heaven proves he belongs in the first rank of living US directors. Let’s hope it also restores Sirk’s dusty reputation and puts him in the pantheon of all-time great film-makers, where he belongs.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002