In the landmark cult film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and in his later films (particularly Safe), Todd Haynes charted the physical and psychological dysfunction of the upper middle class American family. With such credentials, few contemporary directors would be better suited to direct an homage to Danish born director Douglas Sirk's exceptional melodramas.

Visually, Far From Heaven is a luscious, reverent invocation of the look, color and style of those Sirk classics such as Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, and Imitation of Life. Purportedly a “remake” of All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven resembles the Sirk film in many ways, especially in the main line of the plot and in the 1950’s setting. But its departures are also significant. Haynes considerably alters, escalates and modernizes the classic societal and family problems that confront his characters in a way that reveals a sophisticated understanding of Sirk’s moviemaking principles.

In All That Heaven Allows, the heroine, Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), is a widow with grown children. Her gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a working-class free spirit, is younger than Cary. When Ron and Cary fall in love, both her country club friends and her uptight children object, because Ron “isn’t in their set” and because he is younger.

Haynes’ film introduces us to Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a housewife who seems to have the perfect life. Her handsome husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), works as an advertising executive in the city. They have two young children, a boy and a girl. Their well-appointed home in an old Hartford, Connecticut, suburb is meticulously maintained by Cathy’s African-American maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), and gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Despite a heavy schedule of carpools, parties and shopping, Cathy’s circle of girlfriends enjoys enough leisure time to share afternoon cocktails and discuss how often their husbands demand sex.

Frank’s long hours at the office make him “too tired” for sex. One night, Cathy decides to go into the city to bring him his dinner, and discovers him in his office kissing another man. Frank seeks psychiatric and behavioral modification treatment for his “problem” but (surprise!) the treatment doesn’t work. Cathy, meanwhile, develops romantic feelings for Raymond. He brings his daughter to a modern art exhibit organized by Cathy’s best friend, Eleanor, at the local gallery. While most of the art lovers rudely stare, Cathy and Raymond have a long conversation about art. A few days later, when Raymond discovers her behind her house, crying (because of her estrangement from Frank), he invites her to go for a ride in his truck. They end up at a bar frequented by African-Americans, where Cathy creates the same kind of sensation among the bar patrons that Raymond did at the gallery. Seen going into the bar by one of the town gossipmongers, Cathy becomes a social pariah. Raymond also suffers: his home is vandalized and white boys terrorize his little girl.

When Frank hears the gossip about Raymond and Cathy, he verbally abuses Cathy, accusing her of risking the status his hard work, sacrifices and accomplishments have provided. He is too much of a hypocrite to consider the damage that revelations about his own proclivities might do. Confessing his feelings to Cathy, he admits that he has never been in love before. Eventually, Frank leaves Cathy for a young man. We last see him in a hotel room with his new lover.

Were Haynes observing the genre “rules” of the '50s melodrama, Cathy would be rewarded for her suffering by successfully pursuing her relationship with Raymond. They would move to a more liberal community in order to live as an interracial couple. We would see them pile their three kids into Cathy’s blue station wagon, bound for Manhattan or San Francisco. But in Haynes’ film, Cathy is denied the conventional melodramatic ending. Cathy and Raymond both have young children to think about. When Cathy expresses her desire to be with Raymond, he tells her that this is impossible. His priority is his daughter and he is moving with her to Baltimore. We last see Cathy at the train station, where she has gone to catch a glimpse of Raymond as he boards the train.

In Far From Heaven, Haynes has introduced two extremely volatile issues (racism and homophobia) that, taken together, are too much for one heroine to overcome. Sirk’s film focused on the class and age differences of Cary and Ron. From the beginning it was clear that the social forces intent on keeping them apart would and could be overcome, even though both Cary and Ron must suffer before they are united at the end of the film. In Haynes’ film, the social forces are too much for Cathy and Raymond, but, significantly, not for Frank. While we seldom see anything beyond Cathy’s point of view, Haynes does cut away from Cathy’s story to show us important moments in Frank’s life. We follow Frank into a clandestine gay bar where he exchanges glances (and presumably has sex) with another businessman. We witness the beginnings of a tryst between Frank and the young man who will become his new lover. Both Frank and Cathy turn to other people for emotional and sexual fulfillment, but Frank’s frigidity and unfaithfulness motivate Cathy’s interest in Raymond. Repeatedly, the trajectory of Frank’s desire competes with Cathy’s story.

It is Frank, rather than Cathy, who is the beneficiary of the “classic” melodramatic resolution. Discussing another of his films, Written on the Wind, Sirk revealed that, for him, the compelling roles were the secondary characters played by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. They are the “secret owners of the picture,” Sirk admits. In Far From Heaven, Haynes has apparently adopted not only Sirk’s look, plot and setting, but also his tendency to elevate his film’s secondary characters. Frank is Haynes’ secret owner.

At a screening of Far From Heaven, Haynes reportedly suggested that, when Cathy leaves the train station she and the kids head for California. This is a directorial afterthought (or perhaps a response to criticisms of the film’s ending) because little in the film justifies such a reading. Cathy is left with her children, her big suburban house and her now tainted friendships. By suggesting that Frank might live happily ever after (or at least get the relationship he craves) Haynes “updates” the genre, while undercutting the central premise of the '50s “women’s” melodrama.