A Heaven of Magnificent Obsessions

  • Their hairdos were lacquered helmets seemingly designed to crush thoughts about anything more complicated than the cheese dip's texture. Their faces were masks, the makeup preventing any expression broader than a polite smile. Their bodies were encased in push-up bras and grasping girdles, choking any hint of untoward sexual expression.

    These were the ladies who lunched in Douglas Sirk's 1950s "women's pictures" (magnificent obsession, all that heaven allows, imitation of life). Universal Studios decreed the improbable luxe of their suburban decor and the oversaturated colors of the films' palette. reviewers of the time dismissed these films (though audiences lapped them up), but over the years academics, feminist theorists and the ga-ga cinephile community have insisted on a re-evaluation. They see in Sirk's films' sympathy for his painfully repressed heroines a slyly subversive assault on the bland values that strangled them.

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    This imputes to the European-born director an intention not entirely supported by his work. But writer-director Todd Haynes, whose far from heaven is both a perfect pastiche of and a passionate homage to Sirk, makes the best possible case for him. Haynes encountered sirk when he was studying film at brown university and soon enough — possibly because haynes is a gay man, all too familiar with bourgeois hostility to sexual nonconformity — became hooked. "Sirk was trying to approach these Ladies Home Journal properties with a kind of critical distance," says Haynes, "critiquing dominant american cultures and a sort of claustrophobia that basically trapped these characters." He also observes that Sirk's pictures were different from women's pictures of the '30s and '40s, which depicted their leading women as spunky, often successful rebels against the status quo. Sirk's heroines "were actually very ordinary, fragile. If anything, they buckle under pressure in the end."

    All of which is true and sounds more like a critical historical thesis than the edgy, absorbing movie Haynes has made. He is able to raise the melodramatic stakes. Yes, his Cathy (Julianne Moore) is drawn to her gardener (Dennis Haysbert) in the same way Jane Wyman once was to Rock Hudson. But he is now a black man, thus infinitely more threatening to suburban comity. Her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a workaholic, as emotionally absent as any Sirk hero. But he is also coming to belated terms with his long-closeted homosexuality. Haynes is opening issues here that '50s movies could only hint at.

    And unlike Sirk, he has actors who can play a fuller emotional range than the stiffish likes of Lana Turner and Rock Hudson. Quaid makes a decent man's anguish richly palpable. Moore makes us feel hidden frenzy with a cool and ultimately heartbreaking grace. As a result, Far from Heaven ironizes without parodying an antique screen manner, then reaches out from beneath this smooth cover to grab us. It's the Sirk movie — fully alert to all his shadowy implications — that Sirk may or may not have intended but never actually made.