this movie is really quite good. there's a lot to discuss and since the movie's plot is pretty well known, thinly veiled in the trailors, and not adverse to any discussion, there will probably not be any spoilers in this review.
Todd Haynes wrote and directed this movie. his cinematographer needs a hefty bit of praise as well. the movie opens with a shot of a tree. a great tree of the northeast or midwest - leafy, full of autumnal colours, and bustling in the wind. we swoop down from the tree to a meticulous representation of a suburb in the 1950's.
enter Julianne Moore as Cathy. her wardrobe is just exquisite. it's as deep as the colours of fall. she wears amazing full skirts with matching heels and fur trimmed coats. satin gloves and silk scarves adorn her outfits as well. she's obviously rich and well mannered.
she's married to the top sales man, Frank, at a company that looks like RCA. she's a distant, but doting mother of two children and she is an appropriate friend to all of her society club wives. her life seems comfortable, if artificial. Cathy seems almost saccharine in her responses to nearly all parts of her life. she's overtly supportive of Frank and her children, even if they aren't always kind. she magically diverts the harder insults and turns a smile to everything. it's hard to imagine someone truly happy in this mode, but she's given the time to do many things she wants to and doesn't have a lot of other opposing ideas (all of the other society wives seem to behave in the same fashion). she's respected and admired.
their house is amazing in detail. it's a two story house with contemporary and classic treatments. the lighting, decorating, and furniture are all part of the set that Haynes uses for the movie. there are lots of small rooms and nooks to separate your life from those around you. the kids aren't allowed to swear and don't watch much TV. Cathy and her maid spend a lot of time keeping the house in order and getting ready for the annual company party that they host.
Cathy's maid is black and so is her gardener. she is seen as progressive for her favorable views towards integration in 1957. her husband is increasing the distance between the two of him. he's drinking more, finding reasons to stay at work, and apparently trolling for other men in a speakeasy like bar. in an act of dutiful devotion, she runs his dinner into town so he can have something to eat besides 'pretzels and coffee'. she walks in on him with another man. she flees the building and heads to the safety of her house.
when he finally arrives home, they have a guarded confrontation. this five to ten minutes was some of the best material from the screenplay. neither of them can talk about it, so their argument has little meaning. they agree to see a doctor to see if Frank can be 'cured'. Dennis Quaid does a fine job as the husband in this movie and i think may be some of his best work since either Everybody's All American or The Big Easy. you can see his struggle to maintain the image and the pressure of that struggle. it cripples his communications.
the doctor suggests that therapy may make Frank a practicing heterosexual. Frank wants to commit to the treatment for all the right reasons in his mind - Cathy, the kids, the job. watching this, the audience is surely confused by the goals of the doctor, but the illusion of the society is necessary and this seems consistent. Cathy is extremely supportive and Frank is explainably bitter. sessions begin on weekly basis, but nothing else is revealed about the nature of the treatment.
during the big party, Frank is abusive and after the guests go home, Frank hits Cathy. even after being struck, Cathy is gentle and proper, but confused. Moore's performance is just great. she asks for some ice immediately and is already making excuses in her head for Frank and her self. she's not delusional and does not think she is to blame, but she does try to excuse Frank's behaviour as pressure from work or too much to drink.
the next day, Cathy's best friend thinks something must be wrong. but Cathy denies the inquiries and wants to maintain the illusion. her best friend seems to know that she is lying, but there's no way to get at the truth. Cathy's walls are too high. after her friend leaves, Cathy breaks down in her own garden and begins to confide in the gardener, Raymond. even in this high melodrama, there's a great line where Cathy says "it's so embarassing when people see you cry". Raymond and Cathy have already had many conversations and set the society to gossip when they bump into each other at a local art show. they go to a tree farm and out for some food at a place Raymond knows. Raymond has flipped the deck on Cathy. she's now the only white person at Raymond's favorite restaurant. desparate for a caring ear, Cathy finds great comfort in Raymond. she's spotted by the local sociity gossip whore and the town is more than a bit chatty about this apparent tryst. inside, Raymond has stirred things up in the black community as well. the racism Haynes is trying to show here has two sides.
Frank's therapy has put him in an even fouler mood. he accuses Cathy of risking everything because his co-workers have heard and propagated the rumour. but there's more going on here, Frank has been dismissed from work to put his life back in order. Cathy feels no other option but to turn her back on Raymond. she tries to meet him in town, but the city folk make this an uncomfortable meeting - nearly accusing Raymond of preying on Cathy on the streets. the movie has turned a corner. some of the disagreeable elements that have been on the edges of the story have come front and center. Frank's homosexuality isn't ugly. the treatment is, but the racism shown here is very ugly.
Cathy is confused, but back at her house they try to have a normal Christmas. afterwards, Frank and Cathy head to Miami for a vacation and a breather. they want to get away and it seems that Frank is trying harder to be with Cathy. it's in Miami that Frank has another affair with a young man. it's unclear if Frank knew this would happen, or if it is purely coincindental. when they return to Connecticut, he asks for a divorce.
Cathy's life is heading down wards quickly. Haynes handles the rest of the movie in a very sincere, but depressing fashion. there are a few more parts of the story, but i think those should be seen.
in a different film, Requiem for a Dream, hope is methodically crushed as the story continues. confrontational in his approach, Aronofsky is provoking the audience.
Haynes is far more subversive. he drains hope from this movie and wraps it in an homage to melodramas of the 50s. as we watch Cathy, her choices narrow and each one falls apart. we're not even sure she's equipped to handle a world without veneering, and Haynes doesn't give us any hope that she can. no neat hollywood bow to wrap up this story.
the two largest themes - racism and homosexuality - don't seem to be anything Haynes is trying to lecture on. he's made bolder statements in Safe, an earlier movie with Julianne Moore. i think this picture is really Cathy's story and the problems she deals with.
the music is great in this movie. we hear the same motifs in the jazz bar, in classical overtones, and in a Bill Evan's inspired piano tune. haynes is very methodical in this film and some people may find the pigeon holes he has created too convenient or not real, but they work in the story with his pacing. definitely a gem.
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