Todd Haynes is the only director to really survive the “New Queer Cinema” boom of the ’90s but by his 2nd feature Safe his Queerness was brought into question. The film on the surface level was about a straight woman with multiple chemical sensitivity despite being an obvious statement on the Aids crisis. Gay critics didn’t understand the glam rock bisexuality of Velvet Goldmine but with Far From Heaven he became an indie film auteur and continued with I’m Not There and the magnificent 5-hour HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. His latest Carol has been playing the festival circuit to raves from every critic and it’s no wonder since it might be his best.
Carol is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt but is often retitled Carol and unlike most of her work especially the Tom Ripley series it’s basically a love story and not a crime story. It was her 2nd novel and was written under a pseudonym due to the Lesbian content even though Highsmith is noted to have had relationships with both men and women throughout her life. When the book came out in paperback form where it had the sensationalist tagline “The novel of a love society forbids.”. The character of Carol was based on her past lover Virginia Kent Catherwood.
The film is told through the point of view of the younger Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who becomes obsessed with the older married Carol (Cate Blanchett). They meet in a department store where Therese works and they have some flirtatious glances and small talk, she leaves her gloves maybe intentionally or not. Therese returns them and soon they become friends and eventually lovers. However Carol’s husband who she is a middle of a divorce isn’t happy about the union of two women.
Haynes takes a minimalist approach to the storytelling, in the talk he gave during the London film festival he mentioned Brief Encounter as a key cinematic lynchpin. The film itself is a snapshot of this passionate love affair between these two women during an interesting period in American history. The year the film is set in 1952 (the year the book was published) and it’s not quite the restricted suburbia of Haynes’ earlier Far from Heaven but staunchly a post-war urban period, it’s set in New York City. Women at this time had just came out of the war where they did all the domestic work and it’s safe to say experimented with sexuality while their husbands/boyfriends were off fighting the Nazis. It’s hinted at in the film Carol’s previous lesbian relationship was during the war.
The decision to shoot the film in this age of digital camera work on 16mm is inspired. 16mm seems to becoming the go to format for indie auteurs Wes Anderson shot Moonrise Kingdom 16mm. Haynes in the talk he gave during the festival explains the decision because 16mm looks more like film than 35mm does now and gives it the right amount of film grain. It really enhances the film’s aesthetic especially during the beautiful scenes where you see Therese looking through car windows. The colours aren’t the Sirkian colour of Far from Heaven but a more nuanced naturalistic look. The film’s style at times are reminiscent of the classic filmmaking of Alfred Hitchcock (one of Haynes’ favourite directors) who himself adapted Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. It also has a sprinkling of the minimalism of Robert Bresson and the open ending reminds me of the ending of Pickpocket for some reason.
The whole thing falls or succeeds on the two lead performances and Haynes who has always been impeccable at casting due to his casting director Laura Rosenthal who he has worked on most of his work. Cate Blanchett is one of those actresses like Haynes’ frequent collaborator Julianne Moore who is so consistency good it’s almost taken for granted. Both Blanchett and Mara’s performances is all in the look, glances and just a pat on the shoulder says more than any bit of dialogue can. Rooney Mara however really shines here and really shows her worth as one of the unique actresses of her generation, her performance is all through her eyes and the film till the switch near the third act is told through her perspective. It’s a rare gift that an actor can carry a film through their eyes but Rooney Mara does.
Love stories are hard to perfect but Haynes’ has crafted a realistic love story but with cinematic style to perfection. It’s his statement on the post-war era like how Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was Anderson’s and both films use the song “No Other Love” by Jo Stafford. Mara has blossomed into one of the leading actresses of her generation and Blanchett brings experienced glamour to her title role. Come award season It’s safe to bet on Rooney Mara who won at Cannes to bring home the best supporting actress nomination even though she is the lead, The Weinsteins are already pushing for her nomination for best supporting actress.