Published Dec 10, 2015Historically, Todd Haynes has been a very cold director. He uses distancing techniques and stylistic diversions to reflect the context through which we observe his films. Far From Heaven, which featured Julianne Moore as a 1950s housewife finding interracial solace after discovering that her husband is a closeted homosexual, used the heightened style, score and melodrama of the period to hyperbolize the absurdity of such topics being taboo in a modern context. And I'm Not There repeatedly removed the audience from the narrative and reminded them of passive spectatorship through using multiple actors to portray different aspects of Bob Dylan's persona.
Carol, while still an intricately observed period piece like most of his other films — save the exceptional, metaphorically rich, illness alienation drama, Safe — is rapturous and engaging. Though the pornographic preoccupation with a 1950s aesthetic is present (as is an obsessive attention to detail), the distancing techniques have been eschewed for a densely layered analysis of romance, emotion and passion.
Like many female protagonists in Todd Haynes' films, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) is an unsatisfied housewife living a performative life of social adherence (again, a theme common in Haynes' films). Though she's taking steps to divorce her controlling, obviously wounded husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) — early on, it's made clear that he's aware of her past Sapphic dalliances with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) — there's a daughter stuck in the middle, making troublesome the act of detachment, particularly in an era where divorce and homosexuality were particularly thorny subjects.
Exacerbating this predicament is the introduction of shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara), a mousey artist that lacks certainty and confidence. When the women first meet in the department store where Therese works, there's immediate chemistry. Haynes, focusing on the feeling of the moment rather than the analytical framework from which his audience perceives it, captures the stillness and desire with aplomb, focusing on the gazes of Blanchett and Mara, in addition to the intimacy of their every movement as they flirt their way through a relatively mundane — albeit pointed and quite cleverly written — discussion about toy trains and dolls.
Without any exposition or any awkward telling moments, we understand that beyond the attraction, there's a mutual desire based on what these women take from each other (each is jealous of and resultantly attracted to something the other has). Carol is refined and confident, whereas Therese is curious and innocent; as the film progresses, careful attention is paid to the many ways in which these two enrich each other's lives.
But, every time their tenderness is captured, it's perpetually interrupted by external forces. Harge, scorned by his wife's lack of desire for him, lashes out at Carol by threatening to withhold their daughter, while Therese, though certain of her feelings, struggles with the moral implications of her involvement in the situation and the social expectation that she simply settle down with a nice gainfully employed boy (Jake Lacy) and have babies.
Much of the power of Carol comes from the two lead performances from Blanchett and Mara. Though wildly different characters, there's never a moment where their attraction feels strained. Their characters are rich, complex and even contradictory, constantly pulling from different aspects of the times they live in and the ambivalence about indulging in their desires. Blanchett is an expert at vacillating between social game face — false yet impenetrable confidence — and raw passion, while Mara captures the uncertainty of youth, awkwardly trying to mirror the behaviours of others to mask social ineptitudes. And, since Haynes focuses his energy on capturing the subtle movements of hands and eyes, engaging as much as possible in the humanity of each moment, these performances are fully realized.
Beyond this, one of the more interesting trajectories throughout this touching treatise on the heartache of socially prescribed repression and intolerance is how the phrase "I love you" is handled. It's uttered a few times throughout the film, initially in a heteronormative sense. Therese challenges the statement when she first hears it, asking what it means and how someone she feels very little for could claim to have these feelings for her. It's almost amusing when it's stated, holding no meaning outside of the expectation that it be said. But, once the framing device of Carol comes full circle and the bookend scene — filmed from an external perspective than internal, showing us how little we actually see from the outside — comes to fruition, we understand the true meaning of the statement without it needing to be explained. It's a jarring moment that encapsulates the strength of this excellent work.
With Carol, Haynes has found an excellent balance between his analytical and emotional sensibilities. Here, we have a highly accessible film that doesn't deny or ignore the more cerebral sensibilities and social vitality of what the story represents. His ability to capture heartache and humanity without patronizing or overtly manipulating is commendable.