Paying homage to the Technicolor melodramas of days gone by seems to be all the rage this year. The French mystery musical 8 Women is shot through with character types and costumes inspired by the likes of director Douglas Sirk, and a scene from Sirk's 1959 "Imitation of Life" is seen playing on a TV screen in Eminem's big-screen bust-out "8 Mile." Even the opening credits of "Ghost Ship," of all things, are written in a lush scripted font that lends full period kitsch to the movie's circa-1962 preamble.
The most thorough exhumation yet of drive-in-era details is writer-director Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," and it's also the first of the bunch to put those details to a loftier purpose than sheer fun. Haynes ("Safe," "Velvet Goldmine") uses the sights and sounds of Cold War cinema as ironic counterpoint to a story that keeps sticking its nose into darker corners of human behavior the movies of the era dared not explore.
Something is amiss in the home of the Whitakers, a Hartford, Conn., family who appear to have attained everything suburbia knows how to provide. Husband Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) is an executive at Magnatech, a TV manufacturer with a firm belief in better living through science. As for wife and mother Kathleen (Julianne Moore) ... well, she's a wife and mother, a magazine-perfect hostess with the mostess whose reliance on Negro help allows her time to keep tab on the comportment of the two Whitaker kids. (The use of such vulgarisms as "Aw, geez" in her presence is strictly forbidden.) Frank's job, the family home and Kathy's good reputation are all inexorably linked in the eyes of their community. As a reporter for a local society rag tells Kathy, she and her husband are "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech."
The problem is, Mr. Magnatech has a gnawing, undeniable attraction to male flesh that his ever-worsening booze habit won't dull. Perhaps in response to this unimaginable crisis -- but perhaps not -- Kathy finds herself drawn to Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), the family's black gardener. As far as she's concerned, it's an innocent, platonic friendship. But try telling that to the Whitakers' so-called friends, resolute in their belief that a white woman has no business keeping company with a black man -- no matter how much he may know about Modern Art.
Moore's performance is nothing less than breathtaking. Without ever departing from the film's squared-off style, she shows us how Kathy progresses from unquestioning bliss, to wifely concern, to raw liberal rectitude. Frank's breakdown delicately balances camp and compassion -- though you may find yourself preoccupied by the realization that a drunk, gay Dennis Quaid looks and sounds remarkably like Adam West. (Another pet theory proven.) Haysbert, meanwhile, brings Poitier-like dignity to his role as the impossibly wise Raymond. Now as then, playing the saintly stereotype is the best shake the black guy gets.
Haynes' Big Idea is to shoot this McCarthyist nightmare as if it's a '50s movie itself: Every setting, costume, camera angle, dissolve or clumsy rear projection bespeaks decades of late-show cliché. If nothing else, "Far From Heaven" is the most painstaking film-history exam any student ever turned in. There's a danger to that, of course: In staying true to his chosen form, Haynes has no choice but to keep ironic quotes around everything, his pro-acceptance message included. Depending on your perspective, he could be unwittingly guilty of making tolerance look just as silly as bigotry. For that very reason, when first I saw the film a few weeks ago, it struck me as perfectly assembled but more than slightly ridiculous. On second viewing, I instead perceived a stirring argument for the ideas that conformity kills and silence equals death. What happened in the interim? Well, the words "Republican sweep" might have something to do with it. If a return to oppressive homogeneity is now our best-case scenario, we're going to need every reminder we can get that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to, well, you know.