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FORMAL AUDACITY IN <i>FAR FROM HEAVEN</I>; <I>HARRY POTTER</I> DEJA VU

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by Ben Kenigsberg Shot in the style of the 1950s Universal Technicolor weepies of Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven seamlessly re-invents the "women's picture" and then uses ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

Shot in the style of the 1950s Universal Technicolor weepies of Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes's


Far from Heaven


seamlessly re-invents the "women's picture" and then uses the form to make a modern social statement. Imagine if all of

Pleasantville

-- even the scenes set in the present -- had been shot in the style of a '50s sitcom, and you'll sort of get the idea. The clash between the technique and the content is jarring, but it might be why Far from Heaven is finally so resonant.

Sirk is at once regarded as one of the finest directors of soap operas and as the best satirist of the genre. At first glance, his films appear to be hideously overwrought melodramas about the picayune problems of the suburban middle class. But watch closely, and you'll see that the movies are really about Hollywood's glossy, idealized conception of the suburban middle class. Sirk deliberately calls attention to the fakery of his filmmaking: the sets are absurdly overdecorated, the streets uncommonly clean, and when it snows, you can bet a deer will be prancing outside the front window. Even Sirk's dialogue is distancing; the lines are so perfect that you have to step back and think about what they mean.

In

Far from Heaven

, Haynes takes Sirk's model a step further, treating racial issues in a more volatile way that Sirk could have gotten away with, and dealing with homosexuality, an issue that was never broached in a mainstream '50s film, period. The result is a movie that's constantly bursting at its seams: it looks and feels like a Sirk picture, but the ideas seem disconnected from the form. In one scene that would have been censored under the Production Code, the main character's friends start talking about their sex lives. ("My husband insists on one night a week," one character says. Her friends tell her she got off easy.)

The movie asks us to think about how much society has grown since the '50s. But the film's subtext is more intriguing: Haynes forces us to think about how movies themselves have evolved. In a sense, movies have always served as mirrors for how society views itself.

Far from Heaven

takes out an antique mirror from the attic and asks us to give it a fresh look.

Far from Heaven

tells the story of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a '50s Hartford, Conn., housewife who stumbles upon her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), having sex with a man. Frank feels guilty about breaking up the family and seeks psychiatric treatment. Meanwhile, Cathy falls in love with Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her gardener, who is shunned by Cathy's world for being from a lower class--and for being black.

The gardener romance strand of the plot is borrowed from Sirk's

All That Heaven Allows

, although in that 1956 film, Jane Wyman played a wealthy widow and her gardener was played by the very white (and closeted) Rock Hudson. The racial element comes from Sirk's

Imitation of Life

(1959), which starts by telling the story of aspiring actress-cum-single mother Lana Turner, then ingeniously shifts the focus to her black maid (Juanita Moore). The interracial romance is also reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's remake of

All That Heaven Allows

,

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

(1974), which gave the story historical resonance. (In that film, the main female character was supposedly once a member of the Nazi Party.)

Although the story is littered with literal homages to Sirk -- for instance, Raymond's daughter is named Sarah, after her counterpart character in Imitation of Life -- what's most astonishing about

Far from Heaven

is the way that Haynes has nailed Sirkian grammar in the scenes that aren't explicitly lifted. The distancing devices are all here -- double entendre-laden dialogue when Cathy and Raymond admire a Mir, autumn leaves on the stoop of every building (which also serve as a pattern on co-star Patricia Clarkson's blouse), night streets soaked in rain and bathed in a deep shade of blue. Symbols abound: When Frank secretly goes to a movie house to pick up a man, the theater is showing Nunnally Johnson's multiple-personality psychodrama

The Three Faces of Eve

(1957). The town gossip (Celia Weston) has a Southern accent, a classic Hollywood signifier of villainy.

By juggling three messages (about race, sexuality, and women's rights), Haynes inevitably sacrifices some emotional involvement. The characters are so clearly thesis statements that it's often difficult to feel any sympathy for them. (It's easier to feel for Frank than for Cathy, partially because Moore does a brilliant but distracting combo imitation of Turner and Wyman, and Quaid more or less plays Frank as he would be played in a regular movie.) In the final scenes, the line between irony and sincerity melts away. I've seen the film three times and found it less distancing -- and more moving -- each time. Yet there's no movie playing now that I'd rather see again; no film is nearly as rich.

Like last year's

Harry Potter

film,


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


is enchanting for two hours, but has no idea when or how to wrap things up. Although the sequel is more episodic than its predecessor, the mystery itself is more enticing -- until it concludes with an ending worthy of

Scooby-Doo

. And two hours and 40 minutes is a long time for a film like this; with an epic length, a movie should provide either epic entertainment or epic substance, and Potter has neither. There are only so many stunning set pieces that one can take in a single viewing.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

is darker and less resolutely cute than the first film, which makes it even more enjoyable until its collapse (although small children, like the victims of the villain in the movie, will undoubtedly be petrified). The series's latest offering is Kenneth Branagh, who plays a celebrity (but hack) magician who lives for signing his fan mail. Strangely, Branagh's character is one of the few inventions in the movie that seems more geared for kids than for adults.