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The Films of Todd Haynes: Performance, Desire, and Identity

Written by Kyle Turner on November 24, 2015 

Far from Heaven (2002)

Far from Heaven

Loosely based on Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, the most interesting aspect about Far From Heaven is how it, at crucial moments, sets intellectualism aside in favor of raw emotion. Being capable of as much critique and subversion as the man by whom he was inspired, Haynes places the focal point on the interpersonal relationships and interior lives of his characters: a miserable housewife (Julianne Moore), a closeted husband (Dennis Quaid), and the black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Mise-en-scène is more than semiotic fodder; it’s also reflective of emotional dynamics. This is a ravishing weepie that’s brushed with sincerity.

I’m Not There (2007)

Im Not There

Perhaps amongst the best biopics ever made, Haynes’s film about the myth of Bob Dylan deconstructs the genre into six characters, six styles, and six actors. They’re pieces to be broken and reassembled in a myriad of ways, distinctive and self-contained, yet inextricable from the whole. Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Marcus Carl Franklin play various facets of Dylan that are organized by period, mood, and emotion. I’m Not There is, along with Superstar, probably his most overtly intellectual work, and that doesn’t deter from how winsome, how fascinating this character study (or study of characters) is.

Mildred Pierce (2011)

Mildred Pierce

Haynes’s five-hour film (which was produced as a miniseries for HBO) adapts the novel by James M. Cain, pulls from Alan Pakula and photographer Saul Leiter, and is his most perfect work. Elegantly combining all of his interests and fascinations, stylistic embellishments, and aesthetic proclivities, Mildred Pierce is a rapturous dramatic feat led by performances by Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Morgan Turner, and Evan Rachel Wood. The throughline to almost every one of his films is the relationship between desire and identity, and it manifests here between Mildred and her daughter Veda. Both seeking solace and independence, and yet drawn to one another out of love, protection, and spite, the games they play with one another (literally and figuratively) accentuate a tension that’s addictive to watch.

Carol (2015)

carol_8

If one of the unifying themes of Todd Hayes’s work is gazing, then Carol is his magnum opus, a film that luxuriates in looks, glimpses, and passing glances. From [Safe] to Mildred Pierce, the looks that his performers give (especially his astonishing actresses) have been penetrating beyond belief, able to pass through the screen and into the heart of the viewer. They’ve articulated different things about desire, and Carol — the love story between an older socialite (Cate Blanchett) and a young shop girl (Rooney Mara) — is the culmination of the complexities of looking. As Bryan Lowder writes, “If one wanted to reduced the queer experience to its most basic and universal components, the profound necessity of looking – for each other in a sea of straightness and for signs of hostility in that same mass – would have to be high on the list. Queer people are forced to become experts at looking…” The rapturous eyes of Blanchett and Mara dart around one another, looking for flaws, looking for solace, and the headiness of Haynes’s style melts away in favor of overwhelming adoration, intoxication, and a revelry in eroticism.

What’s your favorite film from Todd Haynes?

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