Critic-charming, visually sumptuous tribute to the work of Sirk
DIRECTED BY Todd Haynes
STARRING Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert
Opens March 7, Cert 15, 107 mins
Haynes buries his reputation as a wilfully obscure maverick with this style-heavy homage to Douglas Sirk. While the glam-rock rollercoaster that was Velvet Goldmine gathered ‘mixed’ responses, this?you couldn’t conceive a more different film?is acclaimed as a Big Important Artwork. Go with inflated hopes, and you’ll wonder what the fuss is about. For all the lavishness of its look, it’s a quiet slow-burner, pinpointing emotional repression.
Set in ’50s Connecticut, it affectionately appropriates the tics, mores and stilted ‘aw shucks’ dialogue of the classic Hollywood ‘women’s pictures’ of that more supposedly innocent era. Only Haynes sneakily inserts a modern-day consciousness. In a ‘perfect’ marriage, rich housewife Cathy (Moore, who starred in Haynes’ Safe) has her feathers ruffled when salesman hubby Frank (Quaid) starts acting strangely. Turns out he’s wrestling with his sexuality. A confused Cathy falls for her art-loving gardener (Haysbert), but because he’s black, further peer-pressure problems are stirred up. “There’s been talk.” The period’s values are rattled and challenged, the chasm between surface and soul exposed.
While co-opting Sirk’s ultra-vivid palette, Haynes acknowledges that that undervalued German-born director covertly questioned middle-class American beliefs, saluting untethered desire. Getting postmodern on us, Haynes uses the hyper-real (you’ve never seen autumn leaves so golden) to heckle hypocrisy and racism. Moore bites her lip tellingly, while Quaid takes a whopping career gamble, and is vulnerable without over-cooking it.
The film looks stunning and the booming, lachrymose Elmer Bernstein score is cattily satirical. A reservation, amid the plaudits for Haynes, has to be that Sirk was no unwitting hack himself. A born subversive, in films like Written On The Wind it wasn’t like he didn’t slide his subtexts in. He cast Rock Hudson with a sly sense of humour. So this is a crafted tribute, not a radical reinvention. Its strength is that in promoting the lush and lovely glories of colour, it remembers its characters are more than just black or white.