Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Anyone who has ever stood in front of a painting by Monet, Matisse, or Rothko, etc. and wondered just how all of those brush strokes added up to great art will find something to love in the Todd Haynes film Carol. A film in which excellent production elements are turned into something as moving and human as what Haynes pulls off here is a rare thing, and something to be cherished. If you’ve followed Haynes’s career (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, Safe) then you’ll know that he has often used heavy period detail to highlight the problems of his characters, who are people in conflict with the times in which they live. That is true in Carol as well, though Haynes’s control over the technical elements of a film has never felt less academic than it does here. I have appreciated many Todd Haynes films, but Carol is the first one that I have loved.
Carol is the second film this season (after Brooklyn) where significant life moments take place in a 1950’s New York department store. Therese (an indelible Rooney Mara) is a shy clerk in a toy department when one day just before Christmas in 1952 - a radio broadcast refers to Dwight Eisenhower as “The President-Elect” - she is approached by a customer named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Their conversation is mundane on a surface level, yet coded like so much of Haynes’s cinema. Carol compliments Therese on her Santa hat, makes sure Therese knows her address, and deliberately leaves her gloves behind. Therese sends them back in the mail, and that provides an excuse for another conversation. We come to know quite a bit about Carol, that she has a young daughter and is in the process of divorce from her wealthy husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, finding new ways to complicate masculinity on screen). Carol has already had a relationship with one woman (Sarah Paulson) and has accepted her desires even though she doesn’t understand yet just how essential they are to who she is. Phyllis Nagy’s script (from Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt”) is very careful to make Carol’s understanding of her lesbianism pre-modern, part of her life that she accepts but views almost exclusively in relation to how it will make things difficult. Indeed, the word “lesbian” is never used. This choice is what keeps Carol from being either a “message” movie or a tragedy, and it’s also the reason that the film is the most genuinely moving of Todd Haynes’s career.
The conflict between Carol and Harge over the custody of their daughter motivates much of what happens, but the emotional journey in the film belongs to Rooney Mara’s Therese as her feelings for Carol come into focus. The fact that Rooney Mara also starred in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is difficult to accept, because here Mara is a woman just beginning to see herself in the world. It’s a carefully worked out performance that has been allowed to breathe; the facts that Therese likes beer and takes pictures with a cheap camera are clues that the woman who hates how she “says yes to everything” - what a summation of the 1950’s - is just starting to figure out what she wants. Much of Cate Blanchett’s performance is about Carol keeping up appearances with family and friends, but Therese is living moment to moment. Haynes and both actors are helped enormously by the costumes of Sandy Powell (mature glamour for Blanchett, more girlish for Mara), Ed Lachman’s cinematography, and the churning music of Carter Burwell. Burwell’s score suggests nothing less than the inexorable forward motion of the world and just how bittersweet that is. That same idea is played out on the faces of Blanchett and Mara, as Haynes keeps the beating heart of Carol alive in his two leads and never lets the film get lost in surfaces. Haynes always chooses a close-up of a face when a wider shot would say “It’s the ‘50s!”. To think of Carol as a “gay” film or as a film about “acceptance” or “diversity” is a shallow reading. Carol is a film in which American morals are the implacable enemy, and we are all just learning how to live.