Carol ★★★★★

"What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space."

Villeneuve’s Sicario may have been given this year’s title of “Most Suspenseful” film but I would argue for Todd Hayne’s Carol. Though the suspense and tension is of a different kind--sexual and romantic of course--the aching for it all to end, to come to some conclusion never leaves you. It haunts you with every hazy frame, every moment of longing.

Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s controversial 1952 lesbian-romance novel. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a soon-to-be-divorced housewife from the suburbs of New Jersey and Therese (Rooney Mara) is a young shop-girl who doesn’t know what she really wants out of life. She’s reactive and idealistically explores the world. A few weeks before Christmas, Carol enters the shop and Therese is drawn to her. She watches Carol as she examines a child’s train set, one only hours before Therese had childishly admired herself. Then their eyes meet and the torture begins.

It’s that moment we’ve all heard a thousand times and likely seen recreated on screen just as much. In reality that experience probably drops quite a few numbers but you know it when it happens because it’s both the most natural and the most intimate moment one can have especially with a stranger. There is fear, confusion, a state of disbelief but then a sense of certainty--not of what has happened but that whatever you feel in that moment--that the other person feels it as well. Of course it is all an illusion once the bubble bursts--there are people and expectations but it lingers on you. Imagine that moment but imagine it between two women in 1950’s America and suddenly that intimate moment shared becomes that much more important. It lingers on Therese like every first promise of love. But anything that lingers must be put away though it’s so natural--as natural as breathing.

Therese finds herself in a world where everything is unspoken. Carol has lived in that world for years suffering, lonely. There is temptation but it never feels predatory. It rests on that moment--on that first glance. There’s boundaries being tested, not maliciously, but gently and considerately. As their relationship grows, Carol begs Therese: “Ask me things.” That’s what Haynes is doing with every frame of this film. He’s begging us to ask for more. He’s tempting us, not maliciously, but engagingly. He keeps us at distance from the relationship as the setting would make us be, to understand the fear, but also the longing.

The film is shot by Haynes’ usual cinematographer, the incomparable Edward Lachman. It’s shot in dark hues with bursts of saturation. It’s pure poetry. The production design and costuming aid Lachman’s already marvelous capturing of the 1950s. Everything about the film is distant even when it’s romantic. However, his ability to recreate the look of the time is unmatched with his ability to create the feel of the 1950s. The oppression and the unspoken fear of everything. The most striking shot features Therese in a cab her face obscured by a water drizzled window. The lights from the city dance on her face. Her longing is interpretive but it works because she feels something we all have felt and thus the intensity or lack of is a projection from the audience--quite like looking at a stranger passing in a cab: are they really sad or am I just imagining?

Haynes and Lachman captures the cold, distant nature of the time and thus of their relationship by keeping the intimacies far away. This distance is captured even more with Lachman’s use of blur and out-of-focus shots and it’s retracting to and from. The framing recalls the work of Wong Kar-Wai in his beautiful and achingly similar work In the Mood for Love. Like In the Mood for Love the two main characters’ face forbidden love. The frames within the frame, the depth of the two women separate in the shots, the still camera that will not follow but remains still even when blocking faces and cutting off heads. The camera does not invade where it does not belong almost in a direct parallel to the opening scene and its new perspective at the end. A man, an outsider, spots Carol and Therese at a table. To anyone they seem just like two women having dinner but when we see the scene again later with more intimate shots--closer, tighter--it is one of the most crucial scenes for their relationship. Before their relationship is consummated everything is hidden behind doors, around corners, behind eyes. To follow would mean to take away the privacy that is needed to experience what they feel--to get that moment at the shop again--to feel that certainty.

As much as Haynes is master at this necessary coldness, it is the actresses that give the film and the relationship its love and warmth. Cate Blanchett is an actress with capital “A” and seeing her tone it down to the oppressive and slow-burn of this film was refreshing. She is still a star--just as elegant, vulnerable and knowing--but with an air of mystery. Rooney Mara meets her in the middle. Everyone’s saying it and it’s true: Mara is a vision. Her roles and her performances to date have taken advantage of her stoic, cold, and analytical presence. Her talent has never been up for question--her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo far exceeded Rapace’s performance in my opinion--but her range has never seemed this great. She is allowed a warmth and a youthfulness until now unseen. She barely speaks--not uncommon for The Roons--but the vulnerability and fear in her voice when she does is something indescribable. The power of her performance is equal to that of the great Celia Johnson in David Lean’s similarly tempting, achingly intimate film, Brief Encounter.

As the film progresses not a lot happens, at least as much as traditionally one would suspect. It’s not a over-dramatic melodrama but there are stakes. The story is contained. It feels risky to keep it so contained but just as risky not to as well. To over-dramatize makes it unreal, to under-dramatize makes it realistic, makes it the 1950s. The music from the time used in the film aids the setting. The original score by Carter Burwell is melancholic. It forebodes the pain and heartache but not in accentuation. There are no teases or swelling notes like a Spielberg tearjerking moment. They rise as the emotions rise like the women’s shallow breaths in the dark. I want to take a bath in this score. I want it swirling around me keeping me warm.

The script is succinct but dripping in nuance. It’s as cold as the setting allows for but is filled in with the characters. There is subtlety, wit, charm but undeniable love and passion. My favorite exchange is between Carol and Abby over martinis. Abby is telling her about a red-head she is trying to woo. As the scene unfolds from this rare moment of truth and openness the audience gets a glimpse of Carol’s vulnerabilities. Abby asks Carol if she knows what she’s doing. Carol replies, “I never did” and suddenly the stronghold of the entire narrative, the confident spearhead of the relationship crumbles in our eyes. So subtle but so good.

Haynes has long been a director correlated to the LGBTQ community. His earlier film Far From Heaven features a similar exploration of forbidden love by a homosexual man in the 1950s. Carol subject matter obviously mirrors this in a lot of ways but his nods to members of the LGBTQ community and his care for them are admirable. He, most importantly, keeps the rare ending from the novel which features no suicide--a frequent end in narratives for people in same-sex relationships during the time period. There is happiness, however ambiguous. I adored the casting of Sarah Paulson an out an proud bisexual who takes the role of Abby, Carol’s best friend and former lover. I pretty much squealed at the end when Carrie Brownstein appeared, another out and proud bisexual. I would have preferred a little more for her to do. That one really feels like Haynes was throwing a bone to the LGBTQ community. She has so little to do that casting Brownstein as that character makes it obvious she is an alternative to Carol without ever actually showing it--just simply because she’s a known bisexual makes her character gay on some level.

In the end everything feels like a moment--like one of Therese’s pictures. It feels like a memory at times. The editing is--aside from the revisited dinner scene--linear though incredibly well done both narratively and tonally. The progression of shots and the sequencing are reminiscent of memories, how, when recalling something you don’t remember exactly what it looked like--it could be blurry or out of focus--but the feeling is there and that is Carol: all feeling at a distance.

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