Carol ★★½

After about 10 minutes, I was deeply excited that I was going to like this movie, really like it in fact. Carter Burwell's score, which I had hardly noticed on first viewing, now felt transcendent (although perhaps that is from watching David Ehrlich's Best of 2015 video too many times). I have even edited my 2015 list to now reflect Carter Burwell's score as my favorite of the year. Then in one of the first scenes, when Therese and Richard are filing into the department store where they work, a security guard repeats in monotone, "Compliments of the season from the management" while handing out santa hats. Shortly thereafter, in some sort of break area, a sign reads, "Keep this room orderly." A literal and metaphorical sign of the times. Perhaps a bit cute or writerly, but the way Todd Haynes frames it, the way these moments set up this time period and my expectations, I was suddenly very here for this movie in a way I was not expecting. But at almost every point thereafter, it gets worse.

Whenever Basil or Ilya has talked negatively about Cate Blanchett in the past, I've nodded my head, but I've mostly been indifferent to her in everything I've seen, including this film on first watch. But on rewatch, I found her "performance" extremely grating. This could be argued to be commentary. Blanchett is conveying the idea that people society treat as if they should be invisible must always be performing to keep hidden. But the "performance" never drops, not with Abby, not with Therese, not with her daughter. And no one else is performative at any point either. I never feel real emotion from her towards a single character in the film, and that leaves Rooney Mara, an actress I normally enjoy, floundering for something to respond to.

While I often love the way that Todd Haynes and DP Edward Lachman shoot objects in this film, when it comes to people, they are pulling straight from the In the Mood for Love and Selma playbook where everyone is almost always to the far left or right of the frame. Why? It often leaves a significant portion of the screen filled up with blank walls or other background/foreground noise. Is this appealing in some way I don't understand? When people aren't pushed to the edges, they're shot through arches and windows or otherwise obscured. Some of these shots are very beautiful. But many, if not all of them, like Blanchett's performance, feel very consciously constructed. The worst of these is the shot when Therese is coming home from her trip to Jersey at Carol's house. The camera is placed inside of a car across the street from her apartment, and the audience can see the small amount of the world that the car's rear passenger side window allows for. Whose car is this? Why is the camera here? Emotions that I might be tapping into with regards to the previous fight between Carol and Harge as well as a crying Therese on the train are brought to a screeching halt as I'm completely taken out of immersing myself in the film. Compare this to a later shot when Abby slams the door on Harge, leaving only a corner of his frustrated face visible. This shot is engrossing because it is motivated. The camera was placed over the shoulder to give us a clear view of the interaction, and the more artistic moment grows organically out of the blocking and movement of the actors and the scene.

But aesthetics and acting tend to be fairly personal elements to a film. Arguing what is or isn't pretty or what constitutes resonant acting or not is usually a sucker's game. Fair enough, maybe this stylistically isn't for me, and it is for you. But how do people give this film five stars with a scene like the pre-trial one between Harge and Carol over the custody of their daughter? This is straight out of the bad Oscar bait playbook, someone too fed up with the system, whatever that system is in that particular scenario, finally speaking their mind and winning over a reluctant status quo driven audience. Just because it doesn't take place in an actual courtroom doesn't make this courtroomesque moment any less rote.

And this hackneyed scene isn't even particularly earned either. The audience gets multiple scenes of Therese and Carol on their road trip, growing to care for each other, building their relationship, being free, followed by one very short scene of Carol trying to play the good housewife for Harge and his family then two longer scenes of her telling Abby and then Harge and their lawyers that she simply can't take living half a life anymore. Of course that would be true. Whenever I've felt like I've had to hide huge pieces of myself it is a burden that whittles away at every part of me, and I have never experienced anything close to what it would have been like to be a gay or bi person living in 1950's America. But the audience must intellectualize the moment for it to land because the pacing of the previous act doesn't support her outburst. From a mere matter of screen time alone, Carol has spent far more time being true to herself than hiding. Can we as an audience appreciate her feelings in this moment? I mean, I guess based on the torrent of positive reviews, most people did/do, but I find that fairly surprising.

And what are we supposed to take away from this film? I'm not saying that a film has to have any political overtones or big thematic depths; just a love story is perfectly nice sometimes, but this film continually introduces things in sleight ways without ever really delving into them. Can you really set a love story between women during the height of America's post war attempts at conservatism and "normalcy" and have it be just a love story? What are we to make of their age difference? Their class difference? Is the fact that everyone has unusual, white sounding names a pointed commentary on the whiteness of this movie?* Is Haynes advocating that we ignore all this in favor of love? I have only seen two films directed by him, but this feels nothing like Safe, one of the most pointed and disturbing films that I've ever seen.

Are we even supposed to like Carol? From what I see, most people do, but I don't really know why. The letter she writes to Therese toward the end of the film is smug, patronizing, and cruel. Her follow up proposal that bookends the film feels emotionally manipulative and deeply unfair. I guess I can imagine a way of seeing these attributes of her character as part of learning to survive in such a hostile environment, but the film doesn't land that for me. So instead I feel like I'm just being asked to like someone and root for her to get what she wants simply because she is the titular character. Is that what I'm being asked? Am I supposed to judge this unhealthy relationship? Is the film simply trying to avoid the trap of over correcting erasure by making all characters that are from marginalized groups perfect?

I don't know. I guess it's better that on this watch I liked the film at first and grew frustrated with it by the end as opposed to my first viewing when I felt mostly indifferent to all of it. I'd rather have feelings than not have them. But the gap between me and this film seems even wider, even though I liked it slightly more, than it did when I didn't care about it one way or the other.

* I noticed one black person. He was taking tickets on the train

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