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SPEED DIAL
MISERY, REPRESSION AND CONFORMITY - THE GNAWING SOCIAL ISSUES OF THE '50S ARE STILL RELEVANT DECADES LATER

Movie Review

Far From Heaven ****(Out of four)

Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert in Todd Haynes' much-acclaimed resurrection of the '50s "women's picture."

Rated R, opening Friday in the Amherst Theater.

"Far From Heaven" is the most important film of the year by far, I think.

The year isn't over yet, but Todd Haynes' rich, beautiful reinvention of the '50s "women's picture" does something that is all-but-unique and not just in movies, but in every part of our culture.

The facts are simple enough: "Far From Heaven" is a free-form remake of "All That Heaven Allows," a 1955 film starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson by the great '50s master of Hollywood melodrama, Douglas Sirk. (See also "Written on the Wind," "Imitation of Life," "Tarnished Angels" and "Magnificent Obsession.") Haynes throws pieces of all sorts of Sirk movies into the mix but it's "All That Heaven Allows" that provides the most basic framework.

Except that this is Sirk melodrama with a difference. Haynes dives right into subjects that Sirk could only circle cautiously if at all - namely homosexuality and interracial romance. And while Haynes does all that, he painstakingly preserves the technicolor style of '50s women's melodrama - the colors straight out of a jukebox or a gas station landscape calendar, the pseudo "concerto" music, the clothes (though the brim on Dennis Quaid's hat looked a bit narrow to me), the furniture, the highball glasses, the social events that almost implode, the romantic assignations full of degradation and yearning.

Such consummate "women's pictures," you should know, have always had a minority of ardent partisans inside the world of movies. There have always been those who have noted the nasty and unjust disparity between the respect routinely accorded male movie genres (Westerns, crime dramas) and the presumably "lowly" Sirkian melodrama. They have always comprised a group larger than a cult but smaller than a movement.

Two kinds of people will look now at "Far From Heaven" in wonderment - those who saw and remember Sirk's movies and those who have never seen or even heard of one. The former will be astounded at the uncanniness of Haynes' free-form postmodern imitation of '50s screen life; the latter may well be as astounded (and mesmerized) at this anatomy of misery, repression and conformity as they would be at the newest fantasies out of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. And that's why "Far From Heaven" is such a radical and brilliant departure from almost everything we've been seeing for close to four decades. Here, finally, is a movie of ferocious intelligence that steadfastly refuses to be ironic.

For almost 40 years now, this sort of thing - when it wasn't bad nostalgia - has been offered as parody, satire and camp. It's been everywhere. What started in the '60s with painters and writers like Donald Barthelme continued on through "Saturday Night Live" and wound up to be ubiquitous in commercials, music videos and TV shows like "That '70s Show."

So we sit down at a movie like "Far From Heaven" expecting all of our cheaply superior sensibilities to be tickled and flattered and massaged. That's what pop culture always does with its own past.

But not "Far From Heaven." That's why it's so bold and radical.

It takes all of this - its time, its struggling upper class people - with total seriousness and it winds up to be strangely moving while you watch and absolutely haunting afterward.

I saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival in September and was impressed. It's been in my head ever since and has grown there in audacity and stature and rarity.

It's about the kind of '50s family who seem, on the surface, exemplary. Dad (Dennis Quaid) is an executive at Magnatech, a dynamo in the rapidly expanding business world of electronics.

Every now and then, Mom (Julianne Moore) gets a mysterious call from the police and has to go retrieve him. "It's all just a big mix-up," he non-explains. "The whole thing."

Mom seems to wear so many crinolines under her dresses that it's a wonder she can sit down at all. "Darling, you have nothing to be sorry for," she assures him. "It was all just a silly, wretched mistake."

Maybe not. We soon discover that he drinks a lot, goes on the prowl at the local movie house (he's there for the comforting darkness, not the movies) and winds up in gay bars, half-cruising and half-drowning in '50s cocktail bar despair.

Even so, the local society newspaper columnist still calls them "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech."

Then, one day, "Mrs. Magnatech" sees a tall black man (Dennis Haysbert of "24" fame) in her yard - not exactly a common sight in '50s suburban Connecticut. It eventually turns out that he is not just a gardener but a decent, compassionate widower with a lovely young daughter, an appreciation of abstract expressionism and an easy knowledge of the human heart far beyond anyone she knows.

When she happens, one day, upon her husband kissing another man in the office, they try couples therapy, as any good '50s suburbanites should. "I know it's a sickness," says Frank, "because it makes me feel so despicable."

As wife and "gardener" become ever closer in the most common emotional man-woman ways, she does volunteer work for the NAACP. Her husband, though, seems well beyond therapy.

Their "friends" meanwhile - especially the honey-dripped tarantula who is her best friend (Patricia Clarkson) - go to work gossiping and enforcing their group's tight social mores.

At every point, a vastly lesser movie would invite you to howl at the quaintness of bygone repression and conformity. Not this one. Everyone plays it straight here, especially Julianne Moore, who gives one of the truly remarkable and heartrending performances in the last few years of movies.

To get across what Haynes is doing, no expression that passes across her face and nothing that comes out of her mouth can have ironic quotes around it. She has to move you.

And she does. Hugely.

In any higher scheme of things, the Oscar isn't much of a prize but, such as it is, I'd give it to Julianne Moore for this film and, as well, for her truly remarkable history in recent American movies (everything from "Boogie Nights" and "The Big Lebowski" to "End of the Affair" and "The Shipping News.")

It is almost entirely because of Julianne Moore that this '50s story, which could so easily have been just another cheap joke to flatter us in our supposedly wised-up state, becomes something altogether larger and beyond time, despite its fiendish attention to period detail.

It's about people who can see happiness right in front of their faces but who can't quite get through their own era's mores to get there.

At the end of "Far from Heaven" you realize that, for some lives, when has it ever NOT been the '50s?

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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