The Pitfalls of Suburban Ennui: In Praise of Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore’s Collaborations

It could be argued that Oscar winner Julianne’s Moore’s finest hours are in her leading roles with writer/director Todd Haynes. From her ability to pull off a scene with emotional theatrics to sell her character’s turmoil to how she can shatter the viewer with a glance or a line reading, Haynes–a visionary who emphasizes character actions and the actors’ faces to tell the story as much as the luscious visual aesthetics–has guided Moore’s gifts to expert use. This match in filmmaking Heaven has specialized in portraying various hells of suburban ennui, whether it’s close-mindedness within an environment like a tight bubble or simply being stuck in that bubble in the first place. 

Their first collaboration, the 1995 psychological thriller “Safe,” highlights more of the latter. Housewife Carol White (Moore) lives a mundane life within her upscale California neighborhood to the degree where even when doing something leisurely like taking an aerobics class with her circle of friends, she seems out of place. With her stiff physical movements and flimsy vocal upspeak, Moore illustrates how detached she is from those around her, playing her like a live porcelain doll trying not to break. Carol’s struggle to always be in line and act as a model housewife to a husband who already keeps her at a distance becomes exacerbated once she succumbs to an unspecified illness and doctors have trouble finding a proper diagnosis.

The wide shots of Carol sitting alone in physically open spaces as if constantly trapped in a cage also reflect her isolation, which reaches a critical point during the film’s scariest scene. When Carol attends a baby shower with her friends, at one point, she stares from afar while the guests start unwrapping gifts. As the camera zooms in on her while the eerie score from Ed Tomney and Brendan Dolan plays, Carol starts physically shaking. There’s not a drop of blood, nor does a boogeyman suddenly pop out of the closet. Yet, the panicked look on Moore’s face as Carol has more trouble breathing is scary enough to cause the same kind of nightmares as a “Halloween” movie. The way Moore distorts her face makes it seem like Carol has become a woman possessed. 

Although the film has drawn comparisons to the AIDS crisis both during and after its release, the story is ambiguous enough that it was just as relevant in 2020 during COVID-19 as in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Moreover, Moore playing the ill-stricken housewife with immense abandon even affected her to the point where she said she’d avoid losing or gaining a ton of weight for a role again. 

Haynes and Moore’s follow-up collaboration, the 2002 Sirkian melodrama “Far From Heaven,” moves away from the horrors of viral paranoia as it examines 1950s racism and homophobia in suburban Connecticut. Unlike the grainily bare-bones appearance of Carol White’s environment in “Safe,” the atmosphere in “Far From Heaven” appears as radiant as the autumn leaves falling, thanks to Edward Lachman’s Oscar-nominated cinematography. However, the colorful aesthetic acts as a mask for what lies underneath. 

The doom lying under the pristine surface takes the form of staredowns from bystanders in the background, like bigoted gossiper Mona Lauder (Celia Weston), as they observe protagonist Cathy Whitaker conversing with her kindly gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Although they strike up a friendly bond, given the circumstances of the time, their being seen in public inevitably lights a storm of rumors and prejudice. Even Cathy’s maid, Sibyl (Viola Davis), senses it before such rumors transpire when watching her and Raymond leave the Whitaker house to go on a forest stroll. As the camera quickly captures Sibyl’s reaction, it’s clear she already knows what will come of their friendship.  

Once Cathy deals with ostracism within her tight-knit community while keeping up appearances with her marriage to her closeted husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), Julianne Moore plays her with sly resilience and anguish without overplaying the melodrama. Furthermore, in a film set during the golden age of movie stars, who can telegraph a character’s thought process to the screen with their face, Moore does just that whenever the camera zooms in on her. While not a traditional movie star, Moore still possesses screen presence and, given how she perfects the performance style of stars from that time, would’ve been a bonafide leading lady in the ‘50s. That and her generally stirring talent resulted in her receiving her fourth Oscar nomination, her only nomination for a Todd Haynes film thus far. 

One great example of Moore saying a lot with almost so little is the scene where Cathy visits Raymond the night before he leaves. She uses words to persuade him to stay, saying, “No one would know us there,” while her eyes and trembling body reflect her knowing the crushing inevitable. Once the camera closes in on both actors, it reflects not so much Cathy’s claustrophobia within her pristine environment but the emblematic space they’ve created for each other. By the film’s end, there’s a hope that Cathy is at least holding onto that as she forges ahead. 

Moore’s third character with Haynes, Gracie Atherton-Yoo exists more in a day-to-day stasis than anything resembling Cathy Whitaker’s hope. Neither a victim of the conservatism of her time like Cathy nor an avatar for contagion anxieties like Carol White, the lynchpin of “May December” is the constructor of her doomed fate. After her criminal affair with the child who would become her husband (Charles Melton) got her imprisoned and made her a public pariah, Gracie settled down with her family in a quaint Georgia house. Not so much because it’s an ideal home but partly because, according to them both, it’s where they get the fewest feces boxes delivered to their doorstep. 

Even though we don’t get heated scenes of Gracie confronting angry bystanders, judging by the doorstep surprises they get, it’s clear enough how at war the general public is with her. Instead, “May December” is more about how she’s at war with herself and Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), the actress studying her for a movie about her life to the point where she mimics Gracie’s every physical move and lisp. 

Compared to Carol and Cathy, Gracie has a more reduced role in her film and less of an arc to navigate as she’s already at peace with her painstakingly ordinary existence. What separates her even more is the virulent side that Moore taps into fearlessly. When we first meet Gracie, there’s an immediate passive-aggressive apprehension about Elizabeth interloping into her life for research before unveiling a more guileful side once she makes the already-bewildered Joe feel at fault for initiating their relationship to absolve herself of any responsibility for what happened. Gracie doesn’t raise her voice, yet her words cut through to him like a knife. When she does act as a model housewife, kindly sharing recipes with a lionizing smile, it’s not so much to be the model housewife that Carol and Cathy are, but rather to toy with those around her.

In the familiar fashion of a Todd Haynes film, where a character’s silence can speak crushing volumes or a close-up shot makes them feel trapped, Joe’s emotional remoteness becomes reflected during a pivotal graduation scene towards the end. As the camera captures Joe seeing his kids grace the graduation podium, it gets a shot of him watching alone. He breaks down as it hits him that they’re not only leaving him at the nest but about to live out the normal adulthood he never had. Although Joe won’t be in the nest alone as he’s living out his marriage with Gracie, the camera closing in on him symbolizes how encased he feels. 

With a similarly gritty look as the cinematography in “Safe,” and a similarly ominous score that sometimes plays over seemingly benign moments, “May December” feels connected to its predecessors in Moore and Haynes’ unofficial suburban ennui trilogy. Instead of capturing the simple act of a car driving, it shows birds chirping and butterflies flying with the eerie music highlighting the ill-fated underpinnings that will follow. From the opening credits of “May December” to the luscious cinematography in “Far From Heaven,” Haynes finds ways to mask or stress the darkness beneath the ordinary, but his greatest asset remains a close-up of his leading lady. May this actress-director collaboration only continue.


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