Carol: Todd Haynes Most Fully Realized Film

Carol, Todd Haynes’s sixth feature, may not be his most significant, but technically, it’s his most fully realized film to date.

That’s a bold statement to make in describing a director who has only made interesting films, both thematically and artistically, even if they did not always find appreciative audiences.

carol_4_blanchettMarking his 25th years as a filmmaker, Carol is at once a logical follow-up to Haynes’ former movies as well as a potentially new departure.  For one thing, Haynes did not originate this project, which has been around for over a decade. At one point, John Crowly was set to direct with Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska (in the role that is now played by Rooney Mara).

For another, Carol is Haynes’ first film in which he was not involved as a writer or co-writer (he collaborated with Oren Moverman on several works).  World premiering at the 2015 Cannes Film Fest, Carol, Haynes’ second appearance there (after Velvet Goldmine in 1998), the film was eagerly anticipated.  Adapted to the screen by Phyllis Nagy, it’s based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, featuring two great actresses, Blanchett, fresh off from Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and Mara, best known for her Oscar nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Though he didn’t write the script, in Carol, Haynes continues to explore ideas, themes, and characters that have preoccupied him over the past three decades.  As is the case of other interesting indie directors–David O. Russell, Alexander Payne,  Soderbergh, all roughly his age (he was born in 1961)–Haynes may be an auteur in the thematic rather than stylistic sense of this concept, as coined by the great critic, Andrew Sarris.

Carol belongs to Haynes’ provocative films about various forms of deviance, astringent explorations in theoretically-influenced queer cinema.  The new film, like most of his oeuvre, deconstructs sexual politics, centering on role of the housewife, played in two of his best films, Safe” and Far from Heaven, by the estimable Julianne Moore. The critically acclaimed, but commercially underappreciated  Safe (1995), is a portrait of a San Fernando Valley housewife who develops a peculiar malaise, conditioned by stifling suburban existence and rigid patriarchy.  As a screen character, in terms of social class and emotional suffocation, Carol, an elegant upper-middle class femme, is closer to the elegant heroine of Far From Heaven than to that of Mildred Pierce (Haynes 2011 TV series with Kate Winselt).

Set in the past–1952 to be exact–Carol explores the lives of two women, just as he did in Far from Heaven, which is set in suburban Connecticut circa 1957.  It is a coincidence but an intriguing one that Blanchett’s heroine is named Carol, just as was the name of Moore’s protagonist–Carol White–in Safe.

The starry cast as well as prestigious source material elevates Carol to a different level–with the Weinsteins’ shrewd handling and December release date, the film is already a frontrunner in the upcoming awards season. (Rooney Mara shared the best actress kudo at Cannes). Some of Highsmith’s novels have been made into successful Hollywood movies, including Hitchcock’s 1951 masterpiece, Strangers on a Train, and Anthony Minghella’s 1998 The Talented Mr. Ripley (in which Blanchett played a small role).  Salt of Earth is the only book  the prolific Highsmith wrote outside of the crime milieu, yet it is framed in the same singular point of view as the rest of her criminal subjects.  All of her books explore the inner thoughts of a festering-criminal central character.

Carol, like Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven, contains issues of coming out and gaining sexual awareness, but they are not the single focus of their respective films.  They just form subplots in narratives that are richer, more complex, and more resonant.  Indeed, the movie unfolds as a classic love story–rather than as yet another explicit lesbian romance–driven, as such tales are, by emotional yearning, fearless passion, sexual desire, and ultimate fulfillment.

In the book The Price of Salt, the focus is on the mind of a young girl, Therese.  Just like her art work, Therese is a woman in the making, initially shy and insecure but ultimately, like most of Haynes’ heroines, gaining self-consciousness and coming to terms with her needs and desires. Therese’s only crime is falling in love, though at first without even knowing it.  Her attraction to Carol conflicts with what she thinks about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend.

The second reel assumes the shape of a road film, but this is a Haynes movie and so everything is strange and ambiguous and nothing is generic about it.   When Harge takes off with their daughter, Carol proposes a car trip out west and surprisingly Therese agrees. Most romantic tales build up erotic tension, leading to a climactic sexual scene, but not here.  After exchanging glances and holding hands, the two femmes consummate their desire in, of all places Waterloo, Iowa, an ironic and humorous twist that is not lost on Carol

The sexual encounter is brief, extremely subtle, more suggestive than revelatory, and it may be significant that only Therese is shown full frontal in the nude.  Reality knocks in the next sequence, when the law pursues the women,  threatening Carol (more as a mother than woman) with cruel punishment for her transgression.

The final, silent encounter between the two femmes is nothing short of stunning, easily earning its positive note (rare in Haynes’ work) and our empathy and sympathy for both women.

The exploration of Carol’s and Therese’s erotic needs reaffirms Haynes’ long held stand that human sexuality is socially and culturally constructed, and identity formation is often a fluid and dynamic process. The protagonists of Haynes’ films are social outcasts whose “subversive” identity and “abnormal” sexuality place them at odds with society’s dominant norms.

In Haynes’ universe, sexuality is a major, dangerous force that can potentially disrupts social order and cultural values.  As such, it is repressed by the dominant ideology of the ruling class.  Artists and writers, especially gay ones, are for Haynes the ultimate subversive groups because they often stand “outside” of conventional norms.  Their rebellious creativity represents great opportunities for both personal liberation and cultural changes.

Haynes’ films have revolved around artists, such as the singer Karen Carpenter in “Superstar,” the David Bowie-inspired character in “Velvet Goldmine,” the multi-faceted Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There,” and now Carol, in which the Mara character is an aspiring photographer (in the book she was a theater designer)

Haynes’ films challenge, upset, and surprise viewers, even those familiar with independent and art-house cinema. He has put women at the center of his narratives, whose stature is elevated by casting them with the best actresses around: Julianne Moore (Safe, Far From Heaven) Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol.

Cannes Film Festival (world premiere, in competition)

Opens: December 18, 2015

The Weinstein Company
Production: Karlsen/Woolley/Number 9 Films, Killer Films
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon
Executive producers: Teresa Ross, Dorothy Berwin, Thorsten Schumacher, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Danny Perkins, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, Robert Jolliffe
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Music: Carter Burwell
Casting: Laura Rosenthal

 

Running time: 119 Minutes

Cast

Cate Blanchettt as Carol Aird

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet

Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard

Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird

Jake Lacy as Richard

Cory Michael Smith as Tommy

John Magaro as Dannie

Carrie Brownstein as Genevieve Cantrell