BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE #7
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Visit the IMDb
for more on FAR FROM HEAVEN including cast, crew and technical information.