The melodrama is making a comeback. Since 2001, films such as David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and Francois Ozon’s “8 Women” have signaled a resurgence of the visually sensuous film genre that peaked in the ’50s. Add to the list Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” a modern-day melodrama that pays homage to the social-minded and cinematographically stunning masterpieces of the Douglas Sirk variety.
“Far From Heaven” appears to be a tribute to Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows.” In the new film, housewife and mother Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) runs a seemingly perfect household in ’50s Hartford. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a successful breadwinner and model father. The Whitakers appear to embody the ideal suburban lifestyle, but as in all melodramas, this is a mere veneer covering their dark secrets. Cathy’s world is transformed when she discovers her husband’s clandestine acts and the horrible truth of her seemingly friendly community’s intolerance when she falls for her black gardener. Ultimately, skeletons come flying out of otherwise neatly ordered linen closets.
In “Far From Heaven,” Haynes demonstrates perfect mastery of melodrama. This film is not to be watched for its story, but rather for its technique. The artifice is precisely what to focus on. And frame by frame, it is as spotless as Cathy Whitaker’s house. The perfectly timed choreography is unnerving, the skewed frames suspenseful, and the production design stunning. Haynes, in his flawlessly composed shots seems to cry out, “Looky what I can do.”
The film epitomizes the idea of style over substance. In one scene, Moore moves from her front yard — where trees shed their red leaves — to the inside of her home, where she sits on a wine-colored dining room chair that matches her dress, nails and crimson-stained lips a little too perfectly. The film shines like a well-polished surface and is very self-aware. As one character comments, “It’s all smoke and mirrors. That’s all.”
The melodic music is also characteristically melodramatic. Composed by Elmer Bernstein, the score swings like a pendulum, swelling forebodingly during tense scenes and softening quickly in the aftermath of emotional breakthroughs.
Quaid is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of a conflicted family man confronting his sexuality, but it is Moore who gives the film its strength. A model of control and restraint, Moore walks with grace and composure through the film and gives her stereotyped character a genuine range of feeling. The film lacks irony, making the characters’ emotional breakthroughs sincere despite the trite dialogue. And unlike “8 Women,” “Far From Heaven” does not resort to camp or parody.
What differentiates “Far From Heaven” from conventional melodramas is that its message is not rooted in the decade from which the film’s style is taken. Haynes confronts the once-taboo topics of homosexuality and racial segregation, which original ’50s melodramas could not explore because of censorship constraints.
Form-wise, “Far From Heaven” is perfect. Haynes definitely demonstrates that he has watched Sirk and Minelli’s films religiously and learned mimetically from the masters, and Moore offers a complex and subtle performance. But what the film depicts are the same old ’50s stereotypes of people making predictable mistakes. The difference is that modern audiences know better. At some point over the past 50 years, audiences have matured and their expectations of films have increased. So by drudging up a classic form of the past and attempting to modernize it, Haynes takes a risk. Unfortunately, the genre has not evolved along with its audience, and so the melodrama’s comeback is ultimately a derivative one.