Sex in the Suburbs

Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore wear their suffering well in Far From HeavenPhoto: Photofest

In Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, set in middle-class suburban Hartford in 1957, the characters are armored in autumnal tones – green swing coats and plaids and orange gloves. Autumn itself appears to have utilized the services of a costume designer; the dazzling foliage is all of a piece with the plumage and the big, bright hairdos of the Hartford ladies, chief among them Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), whose voice seems honeyed with matronly bliss and who is the dutiful wife to Frank (Dennis Quaid), a sales executive, and mother to a pair of picture-perfect children. Cathy’s home-and-hearth tableau is almost unreal in its supernal comfiness – a sure sign that reality will soon set in.

The central upheaval in Far From Heaven occurs when Cathy accidentally discovers Frank kissing a man. Devastated, but still the perfect wife, she encourages him to see a doctor who will “cure” him. As Frank moves ever farther away from Cathy, she grows closer to her gardener, Raymond Deagen (Dennis Haysbert), a widowed black man with a young daughter who is a bedrock of nobility. Haynes retains the costuming and color schemes of the fifties “women’s picture” while bringing to the foreground sexual and racial issues that were safely nestled into the background of such movies as Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, directed by that master of high-toned kitsch, Douglas Sirk. He’s trying to turn the subtext of those movies into the text of his own. In so doing, he is also drawing a parallel between the repressions of the fifties, at least as they appeared in Sirk’s movies, and our current era, which, by implication, is still far from halcyon.

In other words, Far From Heaven is a thesis movie, artfully worked out and played with the utmost seriousness. Haynes and his actors sustain a tone of principled detachment, never winking at us or betraying the slightest hint of facetiousness or camp. In effect, Haynes is deconstructing those Rock Hudson–Jane Wyman–Lana Turner weepies while also paying homage to their seriousness. He’s making the movie that Sirk might have made if Sirk hadn’t had to work everything out in code.

For some of us, there were never any great hidden depths to decipher in those weepies, and so Far From Heaven can at times seem rather precious. It’s a form of intellectual vanity, I think, to ascribe great artistic value to whatever mists our eyes; it’s a ploy that allows us to keep our dignity in the process of losing it. The Sirk movies certainly had more texture and craft than the slick ladies’-magazine fiction that was their literary equivalent, but their upholstered sentimentality and leaden acting is something else again. Rock Hudson as iconic hero? Puh-leeze.

At the same time, it could be argued that whatever was subterranean in the Sirk movies is better off for being so; it could also be argued that Far From Heaven loses rather than gains strength from being explicit. And yet the film’s most emotionally effective moments are precisely the ones that wouldn’t have turned up in a fifties Hollywood film. “I know it’s a sickness,” Frank says of his homosexuality, “because it makes me feel despicable.” In moments like this, Quaid gets right to the quick of a man who is incinerated with self-loathing. Frank’s story is ultimately a sideline to what Cathy endures, but it’s the most lacerating aspect of the movie, and the single instance where Haynes’s lush and finicky homage breaks through to something raw.

Julianne Moore manages to bring some emotional levels to Cathy, but she’s stuck in the iconic mode: Cathy’s homemaker’s pride and politesse mask her suffering. (Just because a Lana Turner role is being played by a real actress doesn’t mean the role is redeemed.) Her increased emotional intimacy with the righteous Raymond sets the whole town talking, and Cathy must once again endure an unfulfilled love. In the movie’s terms, she is left behind because she is a woman.

It’s odd that Haynes, having upended the sexual dynamic of the traditional women’s picture, should otherwise settle for such stereotyping, even though, in the case of Raymond, the stereotype is ostensibly positive. Raymond, like Cathy, is too good to be true. In the end, Haynes may not be terribly interested in reworking the old weepie clichés; if he were, then Raymond wouldn’t endure with such dignity the prejudices of his time and Cathy wouldn’t be so sorrowfully cast off. Far From Heaven ultimately achieves the same sentimentality as the Sirk films, and in much the same way: It elevates female sacrifice into an aesthetic. The movie isn’t about suffering, really. It’s about how you look when you suffer, how you dress up for it. Style is all.

If stylishness and arrant sexual stereotyping turn you on, a much giddier and gaudier movie to see right now is Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, which is so chockablock with his career-long obsessions that it really should be retitled De Palma’s Greatest Hits. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, acting opposite Antonio Banderas, plays a viperish, pansexual vamp who pulls off a jewel heist during the Cannes film festival, at which point the plot collapses into a dreamlike circularity that would have given Lewis Carroll pause.

De Palma piles it on: The robbery scene recaps Mission: Impossible, the peekaboo carnality recalls Dressed to Kill and Body Double, the night-world fantasias resemble The Fury, and so on. And yet Femme Fatale doesn’t really seem like a retread; its elements may be intentionally self-referential, but the overall effect is more voluptuously romantic than in De Palma’s other films. As usual, the romance for De Palma is ultimately with the film medium itself. In the absence of a great subject, that romance can seem, as it sometimes does here, autoerotic.

De Palma is such a marvelous filmmaker that he often allows himself the luxury of making movies about, well, movies. For this, he has been accused of being a nerveless and derivative maestro, but the truth is that the dark entanglements of real feeling are more to be found in his crazed and sinister scenarios than in most of what passes for emotion at the movies. (He makes people angry for experiencing emotions they’d rather not acknowledge.) When he has a story that is truly worthy of him, as in Casualties of War or Blow Out, it elicits his full pity and terror. He seemed mortified in those films by the depths to which his virtuosity has taken him. Femme Fatale isn’t remotely on their level, but it’s a pure (guilty) pleasure trip. That’s pleasure, De Palma–style – twisted, dirty, voyeuristic, a vast glissando of amorality.

8 Mile opens with a kid gearing up for combat in a dingy bathroom. But the impending battle isn’t a boxing match; it’s a rap contest. The kid, Jimmy Smith, is played by the phenomenally successful and controversial rap artist Eminem. He glares at himself in the mirror, music pounding through his headphones, and then he throws up. This scene tells us all we need to know about Jimmy: Hip-hop isn’t a sport for him; it’s central to his being.

Directed with superlative grace by Curtis Hanson from an uneven script by Scott Silver, the film takes place in the Detroit slums. (The title refers to 8 Mile Road, a dividing line separating the suburbs from urban rot.) The time is 1995, but there’s something faintly archaic, almost Depression-era, about much of the action. Jimmy works in an auto plant and lives, much to his humiliation, in a trailer park with his boozy mother (Kim Basinger), her layabout boyfriend (Michael Shannon), and his little sister (Chloe Greenfield). He dreams of becoming a famous rapper and works overtime to get the money to buy studio time to cut a demo his own way. His friends (played by, among others, Mekhi Phifer and Evan Jones) are mostly black; so are most of his adversaries. He has a fling with a local tease (Brittany Murphy) who wants to be a model in New York and who believes he is destined for big things. The movie is positioned to be an anthem for finding one’s true voice and making the right choices in life. Luckily, that’s not all it’s up to. What it’s really about is the euphoria that talent can bring to those who are possessed by it. That euphoria lights up the screen.

Eminem isn’t a trained actor, but even when he’s not in motion, he never goes slack. The movie may be about finding one’s voice, but once he gets going, Jimmy seems to have never lost his. I wish 8 Mile hadn’t strained to defuse the controversies surrounding Eminem’s real-life reputation. Despite a few flare-ups, Jimmy is presented as a decent kid who defends women and is kind to gays and little girls. But then again, it’s a fable we’re watching, and there’s a pleasing innocence to the way it winds up. Who could have predicted that a rap movie starring Eminem would, at its best, be one of the year’s sweetest joyrides?

Sex in the Suburbs