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COMMENTARY

Back to the days of subversive innocence

'Far From Heaven' is pure homage to those '50s 'women's pictures.'

October 27, 2002|David Thomson | Special to The Times

Prepare yourself for an unashamed beauty such as modern movies seldom yield to. Float on a swooning score by Elmer Bernstein, that essential movie composer of the 1950s. Be ready for a wide-screen composition of four women on a suburban lawn of Kelly green, and the gorgeous clash of their billowing skirts, in rose pink, vermilion, amber and scarlet. Or Scarlett?

Yes, these are attributions of color that might serve as emblematic names in melodrama. I'm talking about the new Todd Haynes movie, "Far From Heaven," one of the headiest experiences of the fall -- a picture that could as easily have been titled "All That Heaven Allows," "Written on the Wind" or even "Gone With the Wind." For here we are in Hartford, Conn., in 1957 (where you are entitled to read "heartland" for Hartford, meaning not just the core of Eisenhower's America, but a promise of heartfelt feeling). I don't think any major American picture since "Pulp Fiction" has been so brazen, so radiant even, about saying, "Here's a story (if you like), but more important, here's a certain type of movie."

There's the rub. "Pulp Fiction" is a commonly recognized genre, a stew of noir, sex, violence and intrigue, done with flat-out speed and hard-boiled idioms. Kids and their parents were hip to the riffs Quentin Tarantino was playing off Bogart or Mitchum tunes. But surely in 2002 there are going to be some people who wonder why they're being asked to dwell on this sad story of people from 1957, antiques of desire and repression who seem unable to solve their problems. Fifty years of television and its 12-step dramas have instilled the ridiculous American orthodoxy that we can all make ourselves whole and wholesome. (It's only in life that people do 20 years with a shrink, clinging onto their condition, while having affairs with other patients encountered in the shrink's waiting room.)

To be blunt, "Far From Heaven," which opens Nov. 8, has a narrative pressure, a suggestive color scheme and a stress on camera style that asks, "Why, why on Earth (or in heaven) doesn't Julianne Moore take her scarlet dress and her tender black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) off into the mauve rhododendrons and have the great bloom of orgasm she yearns for?" Think of that composition!

Not that "Far From Heaven" ever lapses into camp or coyness. These days, it might be more audience-friendly if it teased the old genre. To the contrary, Haynes has made an authentic homage, faithful and fond. But that approach to the film can hardly be posted on screen as an introduction, no matter that the following excellent film history is the second paragraph in the press book prepared by Focus Features: " 'Far From Heaven' tells the story of a privileged housewife in 1950s America, and is inspired by the great Hollywood 'women's' films of that era."

Haynes vividly evokes the intense colors and visual style of filmmaker Douglas Sirk ("Imitation of Life," "Written on the Wind") to depict the teeming, oppressive surfaces of middle-class, mid-century America and the furtive, life-shattering desires that fester beneath them.

Renewed respect for genre

The "women's picture," of course, is a description from before the dawn of feminism. Yet it refers to an honorable genre in American screen history, one that concentrates on the emotional plight or solitude of ardent yet wronged women, and which seemingly is directed at the women in the audience.

That covers Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East" or "Broken Blossoms"; Gish again in "The Wind," directed by Victor Sjostrom; Janet Gaynor in several films by F.W. Murnau ("Sunrise") or Frank Borzage ("Seventh Heaven"); to say nothing of such classic "weepies" as Joan Crawford in "Mannequin" (also by Borzage); Barbara Stanwyck in "Stella Dallas" (by King Vidor); Loretta Young in "Man's Castle" (again Borzage); Irene Dunne or Margaret Sullavan in two versions of "Back Street" (the one by John M. Stahl, the other by Robert Stevenson); Olivia de Havilland in "To Each His Own" (by Mitchell Leisen); and even Vivien Leigh in "Gone With the Wind."

That last entry stretches the point, I concede, because Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara is so feisty, so active and so selfish that she shades into the kind of woman played by Bette Davis. Still, Scarlett has stretches of self-pity and an ultimate inability to get and keep her man. By contrast, it is Melanie (De Havilland) who stays loyal to the sweet, passive hope that Gish embodied and which is still to be found in Joan Fontaine in Max Ophuls' "Letter From an Unknown Woman," and which makes Crawford the emotional patsy for her grasping daughter in "Mildred Pierce."

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