In director Todd Haynes' first film, Superstar, he told the story of pop singer Karen Carpenter and her battle with anorexia nervosa, using a cast of Barbie dolls on miniature sets. In his latest film, Far From Heaven, he gets to manipulate a cast of real-life dolls, including the painfully beautiful Julianne Moore and the accurately handsome Dennis Quaid. And it doesn't stop with them. Everything in the movie is a perfectly manufactured product. The settings are drenched in color, awash in dramatic patches of shadow, and well furnished. This is the world that Hollywood made, and it is ours.
In it, Haynes is playing several very clever games at the same time. First and foremost is his attempt to faithfully, without irony, make a melodrama. Julianne Moore, in the role of housewife Cathy Whitaker, gets to react to a range of emotional upheavals, from the discovery by her husband (Dennis Quaid) that he is attracted to other men, to her own growing fondness for her black gardener. Each one of these situations gives Moore the chance to not only show off her acting chops, which are formidable, but also allows her to reveal a truth about human emotions. Doctors of American angst would like us to believe that people can't have emotional outbursts unless they're saving the world, or in more sensitive cases, unless someone is dying. But Moore and Haynes reveal that an intense drama underlies the small and significant events in life. Why not, they cheerfully ask, let the music soar, the tears flow, and indulge in how you really feel?
In Far From Heaven, however, it's not that easy. How much does our world actually allow you to express? Not much, Haynes suggests, with his continuously moving camera, free of convenient edits, and the film's constricted environments, in which perfect ceilings hang over the actors as they struggle to breathe in their prisons of fashion. When Moore's character tells her husband, after catching him kissing a man, that she doesn't understand what's happening, Dennis Quaid responds with a throat-catching "Neither do I." And he means it. Nothing in his world has prepared him for what he's trying, sincerely, to understand. Even when we want to dig beneath the surface, it seems, sometimes another surface is all that we can find.