the rules of propriety

a commentary by Tony McRae

"In the ordinary situation of bourgeois life, banalities about art, literature or cinema are inseparable from the steady tone, the slow, casual diction, the distant or self-assured smile, the measured gesture, the well-tailored suit and the bourgeois salon of the person who pronounces them." Pierre Bourdieu.

Cathy and Frank Whitaker, a 1950's couple, are part of a group of friends whose world is defined by middle class values; they are removed from pedestrian  pursuits as their considerable incomes and life-styles allow.  The Whitakers share tastes and outlooks with friends who clearly consider themselves apart from and above those not so fortunate.  The manner of dress is prescribed:  a woman wears skirts of  a certain cut (full and flouncy); makeup and perfect hair is de rigueur.  These couples (singles would be as much out of place as a pants suit at a party) inhabit a universe in which they control all situations.  They are "polite society" which knows the rules of the game, the most important being propriety and decorum, and the corollary that one not appear to be trying to be proper.  One is expected to be at ease, and if difficulties arise they are naturally avoided, or rationalized away.  Or better still, they find a protocol that will surely deal with the situation while maintaining the facade of tranquility.

Two events occur that threaten this near-perfect world.  The first deals with Frank's drinking.  He gets picked up for driving under the influence, and Cathy is forced to change their evening plans.  She manages this with her usual aplomb, brings her husband home and sends him off to work the next day.  This is her job, after all, being the perfect wife who insures her husband's job and place in society.  She handles this as she does everything else:  with assurance, competence, and above all with discretion.  End of problem.  For the moment.  But Frank's drinking is a symptom of a much deeper problem:  he has discovered that he is drawn to men.  Though this comes as a shock to Cathy, she believes this too can be handled with firmness and discretion, that Frank can kick this just as he can kick his alcoholism.  This being the 50s, both believe that he just needs to bear down and with a doctor's help cure himself.  

There is one other "situation" that arises, which at first blush seems unrelated to Frank's problem.  While being interviewed by the local press for a piece on the Whitakers, Cathy sees a large negro man in her backyard and is  clearly taken aback.  She finds out he is the son of her groundskeeper who has just died.  Raymond is taking over the business.  She is reassured and welcomes him by touching his arm.  The snoopy newswoman interprets this touch as “Mrs. Whitaker's kindness to negroes.”  This is the only possible explanation—in the Whitakers' world there can be no other.  

But Raymond is more of a threat to the Whitakers and their milieu than Frank's "medical problem."  Though he is dutiful and respectful, Cathy soon learns that  he possesses a certain knowledge, a certain taste, if you will, that should properly belong to the Whitakers’ world and not to his.  The most obvious example of this is his knowledge of and appreciation of modern art.  He comes to the Hartford art show with his daughter, and when Cathy talks to him as they look at a Miro canvas, she is perceptibly taken aback by his knowledge of art and modern art in  particular.  This man  has a true appreciation of Miro, unlike her friends and herself who treat the art show as a demonstration of their good taste.  Raymond's intelligence, manners, and good nature threaten her world not because there is a sexual attraction (though it's hard for the audience not to see this coming even before Cathy does) but because she has defined herself solely in relation to her homogeneous group, a group with distinctive values.  And here is a man--a black man!--with whom she can actually talk and express herself as she's never done before.  I cannot stress how devastating this is to Cathy Whitaker.  Her world of careful social codes and exquisite manners is undermined first by her husband's unacceptable proclivity, but far more by her awareness that her happiness, if she is ever to have it, lies elsewhere, in a world she really knows nothing about.

Julianne Moore, with her perfect poise and beautifully strained smile, conveys at once her innate goodness and her entrapment.  She is an innocent who does not know how to rebel, to break down barriers, for she isn't aware at the movie's outset that there are barriers.  When the center of her world does not hold, she is powerless to do anything about it.  Dennis Quaid is equally effective as the tormented husband; his anguished features contrast wonderfully to Julianne Moore's controlled countenance.  

Director Todd Haynes manages to capture the subtlety repressed aura of the mid-fifties without tearing down the boundaries which define the Whitakers' world.  His slowing moving camera and lush Elmer Bernstein score encircle the characters like an invisible web, ensuring that whatever barriers Cathy is trying to breach, will remain.  There's little "action."  When Cathy touches Raymond's arm the first time they talk, I sensed a frisson go through the audience.  

Could this movie which is set in the 50s have been made at that time?  Much has been written about this film being an homage to Douglas Sirk and to his classic melodramas like "Magnificent Obsession," "Written on the Wind," and "Imitation of Life."  What is fascinating about seeing this movie some forty-five years after the Sirk classics is the tendency of modern audiences to feel superior on the two issues of race and homosexuality.  The triumph of "Far From Heaven" is that it holds a mirror up to our own smugness as it compels us to appreciate what it means to be alone when all around us is meant to be perfect.

Yet again the Academy of Motion Pictures has failed to acknowledge a carefully nuanced film whose characters' problems are not satisfyingly resolved at the film's conclusion.


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