Far from Heaven (2002), dir. Todd Haynes

heaven

More so than Carol (2015), Far from Heaven constructs itself as a technicolor Douglas Sirk film, with a sense of artifice. Haynes doesn’t create a real world, or at least initially he doesn’t; he projects the 1950s of cinema. When Cathy drives, the camera points straight towards her, showing the car window and an obvious rear projection of the street behind her. In editing, jump cuts are often ignored; shots are drawn out, leaving instead extended crossfades. The house feels like a soundstage. The exterior of the bar feels like a studio backlot.

The front and back of the house, where Cathy and her gardener Raymond initially talk, forms a luscious garden of flowers that pop, but it feels plastic and unreal. The deliberate arrangement of colour pops throughout the film, and throughout Haynes’ filmography – during the party, we see a row of women in bright dresses – orange, blue, red. The living room is lit in blue light, drawn in from the window. The bar, where Frank hooks up with another man, is bathed in green, whilst leaving Frank cast in shadows, as if he were the troubled protagonist of a noir film.

Equally artificial is the concept of the nuclear family. We are introduced to an idealised, perfect family – the mother, the father, the son, the daughter and, still within the world of Gone with the Wind (1939): the black servant, silent until spoken to. Gradually, as the film progresses, this is revealed to be an illusion. Frank’s homosexuality comes to light; Cathy begins to speak to Raymond more, and the black community is given a voice. But it tries to re-manifest itself: Cathy and Frank try to continue the image of the perfect family, even when they know it has shattered.

Frank agrees to conversion therapy, even when the doctor warns of a low success rate. Cathy and Raymond attempt to make love, but this doesn’t lead to a heartwarming scene of them kissing in each others’ arms, as the camera pans away to reveal the next morning. Raymond cracks, hitting her and rejecting Cathy’s claims that he is still a “real man”. Going on a New Year’s holiday to Miami, he again tries to suppress his sexuality, before meeting eyes with a waiter, and they later make love in his hotel room. He severs his ties with Cathy; we close with a telephone call where he says goodbye to her, as his male lover waits in the other bed. As with Carol,  love conquers all adversity towards it, even in secret, and still leaving a dangling thread of heartbreak. Here, the heartbreak is with Cathy’s suppressed feelings towards Raymond, as he moves away from town, and in her lost husband and shattered family.

When Cathy helps Raymond collect some things for the garden, Cathy asks him how it must feel like to be the only black man in the room. Frank feels like he is the only gay man in the room. As he undergoes therapy, he silences himself, rarely speaking at the dinner table.

Silence carries the film. Sybil, their servant, rarely speaks except when spoken to. The frame itself minimises her presence: she exists as the back of her head, or just out of shot, as she responds to what is asked of her. Only as the film progresses does she gain more of a voice. She signs a NAACP form, surprised that Cathy is allowing her to. She raises the courage to tell Cathy that Raymond’s daughter was the black girl who was a victim of violence, even though she knows it isn’t her place to. Cathy becomes furious at her for not telling her, and by extension, furious at the system that prevents her from speaking.

Similarly, Raymond is introduced as a silent character. He is a black man walking around in the garden to the horror of the old lady visiting, someone to be afraid of. His colours are muted in contrast to the bright coats of the women, the green of his coat blending into the trees of the garden. As with Sybil, he gains more of a voice, though more quickly. He feels consideration and care for Cathy when she is in distress, more than is socially acceptable. In contrast to Sybil, he is the one who initiates conversations, not Cathy.

Silence manifests not only in situation, but in dialogue. Dinner party conversation talk negatively of integration between between “negroes” and whites, but Cathy shuts this discussion down. When Cathy and Eleanor speak about a magazine article on homosexuality, she feels unable to even use the word. Taboo subjects are still talked about – but in hushed tones. When she is honest to Eleanor about her feelings for Raymond, she is disowned.

Cathy begins to feel like what it is like to be a maligned minority. As a woman, she already feels a degree of social pressure. Yet her interactions with Raymond bring the attention of the entire town – affecting not only her, but also the reputation of both Raymond (forcing himself to move), and Frank’s work life. At the ballet class, mothers cling to their daughters lives to stay away from her. She positions herself as an ally, considering signing up to volunteer for the NAACP’s cause.

Yet Haynes highlights the complexities of the forces of racism. Cathy doesn’t only receive sneering looks from white people, she also feels it from the African American patrons of the black majority pub, confounded by what Raymond is doing. I’m reminded of the themes explored in the second season of Agent Carter (2015-16) between Peggy and Jason, dancing in a bar to sneering looks. Raymond ends up with stones thrown through his window on a daily basis – not by white boys, but black people. These attitudes are reinforced both inside and outside the community.

In another scene, at a hotel in Miami, a young black boy wanders into a whites only pool, before being taken away by his father, as everyone else flees in the direction of the sunbeds. As history tells us of lynchings, police violence, mass shootings, slavery and the march on Washington, we forget about smaller, and younger, attacks. The experience that Sarah undergoes is a subtle manifestation of racism – young boys “teaching her a lesson”, not meaning to throw a stone to her forehead. She is the odd one out to them, cast tiny and in shadows by the frame in comparison to the boys.

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