Directed by:Todd Haynes
Seven years ago I saw a strange film entitled Safe, in which a young California housefrau, (played by Julianne Moore) became convinced she was being poisoned by the very air she was breathing in her own home. After failed attempts at counseling, she ultimately retreated to a desert commune where like-minded people hunkered down to await the coming of public policies that would somehow stop pollution and restore the country's natural environment. The movie's plot wasn't sufficiently focused to bear the weight of its theme, and it kept veering between the notion that Moore's fears were the result of a looming nervous breakdown rather than the external threat of her surroundings. But the director, Todd Haynes, used his camera and sets to create a compelling atmosphere that cloaked the action so the audience could enter this frightened woman's life in a disturbingly intimate way. Seven years have now passed and he's done it again, with the same leading lady, on a much larger budget, and most importantly, with a story that contains all the focused power his earlier effort lacked. The result is simply a great movie, surely one of the best of the year, and destined to play prominently in next spring's Oscar races in any number of categories.
Haynes is in his early 40's, but has chosen to look back at the films of Douglas Sirk for his inspiration. Sirk is best remembered for a series of lush romantic dramas staring leading ladies like Jane Wyman, Lana Turner and Dorothy Malone. His most important films, (Magnificent Obsession, Written On The Wind, Imitation of Life) span the decade of the 50's and beneath their lush, glossy surface, Sirk presented, (very tentatively, given the mores of the time) normally verboten subjects like male impotency, alcoholism and miscegenation. But his brand of sensationalism was so opulent and stylized it managed to escape both serious objection from the censors and serious treatment by the critics.
Like a number of current critics however, Haynes has looked at Sirk's work more sympathetically. He’s brilliantly recreated here the style of those films while examining, the two issues the 1950’s never faced squarely-society's refusal to accept either homosexuality or inter-racial relationships. Haynes teams once again with Moore, who plays Cathy Whitacre, picture-perfect executive wife to husband Dennis Quaid. They have everything; beautiful home, (in the best part of Hartford Conn) two lovely and well behaved kids, lots of friends and the wardrobes, home furnishings and lifestyle to go with their status as Mr. and Mrs. Corporate Success. But when Mr. Whitacre begins to stray, his wife finds solace in the company of their quiet, dignified gardener, stoically played by Dennis Haysbert. The nature of Quaid's infidelity and Heysbert's race soon brings down the wrath of their social circle with all the fury of a lynch mob.
It is Haynes genius as a screenwriter, (and Moore's as an actress) to provide in Cathy a character at once precisely typical of those glamorous women Sirk presented in all their vapid, melodramatic insipidness and at the same time a complex person whose suffering reveals a genuinely sympathetic persona. Moore and Haynes accomplish this feat while remaining completely inside the confines of Sirk's style; the smiles remain forced, the glances knowing, the subservience willingly accepted. You meet this woman and immediately dismiss her as a caricature, then come to a grudging acceptance of her inherent decency, and finally to fully share her loss. It's a beautifully written role, brought off to perfection by an actress whose most work since Boogie Nights has been often unexciting. Her performance here is mesmerizing and sure to garner at least an Oscar nomination, if not the statuette itself.
Another award nod will also surely go to the film's set designer; there isn't a lampshade, coffee cup, period car or scrap of wardrobe that doesn’t fully reflect the upper class tastes of the period, and they are seamlessly blended to establish an exact replication of the era. And precision is clearly what the director is after; the storyline begins with shots of maple trees at the height of their fall color in 1957 and ends with the first dogwood blossoms of the following spring. Eisenhower explains the use of federal troops in dealing with southern reaction to desegregation on T.V.; white partygoers unselfconsciously blather about racial issues, oblivious to the black servants catering to them. Even the tail fins on the perfectly selected fleet of cars that appear throughout the movie evoke a time when Americans were incapable of dealing honestly with the issues of race and sexuality which were to engulf the nation barely a decade later.
Elmer Bernstein's lush score, with its florid crescendos and weeping violins recalls Sirk's films perfectly while reinforcing the ambiance Haynes images so carefully create. If great films are collaborative efforts, this one proves the point; it's the best period piece since Gosford Park, and treats its important subjects with painfully honest sensitivity.
The verdict? Simply put, it's a winner.
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