We just watched Far From Heaven today for my introduction to urbanization class. My idea was to show students the intricate ways that race, class, sexuality, and gender are all interlaced in everyday life in suburban environments. The film surely does this, but on this viewing I was also struck by the extent to which it is also a portrayal of people having to live internal lives–people who must live out an entire relationship in a glance, or a gesture, or a daydream–because their society (in this case suburban Hartford CT in 1958) prevents them from acting on their desires. I think the way to emphasize the possible in such a situation is to understand that their desires, their drives, their life does not just evaporate or go away when it cannot be acted out. It continues to pulse beneath the surface, to spread and grow even as it is being repressed.
The film is so beautifully acted (Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert) and shot (Todd Haynes) that we can see this aliveness very clearly in the characters’ faces and bodies even as they restrain themselves from action. It was all so reminiscent of a chapter from Calvino’s Invisible Cities I am so fond of, Cities and Exchanges* 2:
In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.
A girl comes along, twirling a parasol on her shoulder, and twirling slightly also her rounded hips. A woman in black comes along, showing her full age, her eyes restless beneath her veil, her lips trembling. A tattooed giant comes along; a young man with white hair; a female dwarf; two girls, twins, dressed in coral. Something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene: a blind man with a cheetah on a leash, a courtesan with an ostrich-plume fan, an ephebe, a Fat Woman. And thus, when some people happen to find themselves together, taking shelter from the rain under an arcade, or crowding beneath an awning of the bazaar, or stopping to listen to the band in the square, meetings, seductions, copulations, orgies are consummated among them without a word exchanged, without a finger touching anything, almost without an eye raised.
A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities. If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
*The Italian title is Le Citta e gli scambi. Weaver translates this as “Trading Cities,” which is not wrong, but which covers up the meaning of the root word scambio, which means an exchange. So in the plural, scambi means “trade” as a general term. But “trading cities” evokes a more specific meaning (historical cities devoted to commerce, like Venice or Bruges), rather than a more general and everyday one: “exchanges” of all sorts between people. I think this chapter makes the importance of that second meaning particularly clear…