The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Todd Haynes. Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy; based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon. Music by Carter Burwell. Photographed by Edward Lachman. Edited by Affonso Gonçalves. Production designed by Judy Becker. Costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler.
In 2002, director Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven, which starred Julianne Moore as a 1950’s housewife who learns her husband is having an affair with another man. Amidst the crumbling of her marriage, she grows closer to a gardener played by Dennis Haysbert, and their relationship spurs a story that is steeped in challenging the decade’s sexual, racial and class distinctions. In its particulars (its lighting, camerawork, performances and score), it was made as a conscious attempt to recall the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950’s like Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows – films that gleefully smuggled in bold material under the guise of spicing up soap opera theatrics.
Haynes has improved as a director since Far From Heaven, which is a strong piece of work, but one so in love with its throwback formalism that it has the air of an exercise–although one redeemed by superb performances. In Carol, Haynes returns to the 1950’s with another story that shakes up the decade’s norms, but his approach here is more restrained, more pensive. That works for the material, which is about a love affair that develops between a shopgirl named Therese (Rooney Mara) and an older housewife, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Their first encounter is a classic meet cute, in its broad strokes: Carol is shopping for a Christmas present, Therese is there to help, and Carol “accidentally” leaves her gloves behind at the register. The shopgirl helpfully mails them back, Carol invites her out to lunch to thank her, and an undeniable attraction soon starts to grow, although, to be fair, Carol most certainly feels it first.
This is inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s classic 1952 novel The Price of Salt, long cherished as a keystone in LGBT literature. Highsmith specialized in icy manipulators who skillfully wedge themselves into other people’s lives. To be sure, there’s the sociopathic dash of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley character in the early scenes where Carol, who has been around the block a few times, takes the young girl out to lunch and sizes her up, toying with her anxiety and naiveté, enjoying the tension that her class and experience allows her to afford, exploiting signals that the young girl doesn’t even know that she’s sending. But Carol is not a monster. Her behavior is predatory and transgressive, yes, but only because she has to be: she has found herself in possession of a compulsion that the times do not provide an outlet for, and she has made do the best that she can.
We see this in the brittle way she sits in her home and presides over the collapse of her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler, square-jawed and full of righteous anger). Harge is not a bad man. She just plain doesn’t love him; their marriage was certainly an arrangement she made with herself to keep up appearances. He sees her newfound malaise as a betrayal, and he reacts with pain and frustration. Therese, meanwhile, is a pretty girl who attracts a lot of guy friends that she can’t seem to work up strong feelings about: when one boy makes an unsuccessful pass late one night, not even she can quite figure out her own low-key reaction. Her sexuality feels less unformed and more unconsidered. The theme that connects these two people, that heteronormative values (of which there is no better poster child than the 1950’s) can be sometimes poisonous and emotionally stifling, is one that asks to be heard even today, and it reflects one of the film’s key strategies in connecting with us.
One of Therese’s friends, Tommy (Cory Michael Smith) is a film projectionist, and at one point he says why he likes to take notes: “I like measuring the difference between what people say and what they mean.” There’s loads of irony in that statement, since 1950’s Hollywood, thanks to the Hays Code, was pretty adept at coding sexual themes on wavelengths someone like him wouldn’t necessarily be on. But that quote speaks to a unifying theme in Carol. During the film’s second act, which involves the two women going on a road trip to Illinois, they spend every car ride, meal and hotel room chat toying with the gulf between what is being said and what is being felt, especially since Therese is still very uncertain that what she feels is allowed to be said…or felt, for that matter. Yet the connection is decidedly there between them, forged by a subtext they’re both uncomfortably tiptoeing around. Compare that to the relationships they have with their men: there’s a recurring motif of male obliviousness to the nuances of female communication, even when they could not be more obvious: notice how differently one key early scene plays when it’s revisited later, shifting from a male perspective to a female one.
The story is told primarily from Therese’s eyes, mining her descent into emotional confusion. From a developmental standpoint, how must it feel to suddenly learn that so much of what you “knew” about yourself was wrong? In Therese’s world, lesbianism is something that’s whispered and joked about. It’s not discussed in polite conversation, not validated, not encouraged, and there are no instructions left around on how to proceed. Therese has no social conditioning, no accumulated knowledge that can help her, no one she can turn to for advice. Gay people of the twenty-first century certainly don’t have it easy, exactly, but imagine being without the support system that a community can provide. Therese has not the slightest clue how to behave.
As both women drift into a romance, the people in their lives voice concern. Richard (Jake Lacy), Therese’s boyfriend-by-default, raises objections, ones that seem to be sourced out of control rather than jealousy (despite his mutterings, he doesn’t really seem to view Carol as a sexual threat because the notion must be so unthinkable). Carol’s former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson) is supportive of her friend and even relatively nice to Therese, but you see in Paulson’s face what an uneasy and peculiar thing it must be to find your own role in a secret affair (one more peppered than any other with potential for shame and fear) recast with a newer, younger person. Harge becomes more poignantly desperate. Eventually, some low-key thriller elements enter the picture, not as a way to make the drama more slick or exploitative, but as a way to subtly comment on a society that sees a type of love as a serious transgression.
One thing that has remained consistent in Todd Haynes’ career is how well he taps into telling stories about female psychology (let’s not forget the first movie that got him serious notice—1995’s Safe, which was about another housewife played by Julianne Moore—one who develops a literally allergic reaction to her home life). Haynes and his cinematographer, Edward Lachman, here shoot on 16mm film to create a gauzy, wistful atmosphere, and the color palette favors drab browns, whites and grays, underlining the repressed, tamped-down emotions of its leads. The most lush colors are the gaudy lights of chintzy Christmas decorations, ones that don’t offer joy but instead oppressive artificality. The love scene, when it finally arrives, is done tastefully, because Haynes wants not to titillate us but to share the satisfaction, the just plain correctness of finally acting on a passion. Definitely not the same thing.
Blanchett and Mara are both superb in navigating tricky, prickly material. Blanchett begins with a calculating smile that seems positively unwholesome, but as we get to know Carol, and as things crumble around her she slowly reveals a more touching, basic need. Mara has an even more challenging role, tasked with being both headstrong and innocent, conventionally “happy” and yet suspiciously incomplete, anonymous and yet slightly other. There’s a lovely shot early on establishing Mara alone at the department store counter, wearing a Santa hat apathetically as she smiles at customers, trying just a little too hard to look like whatever it is other people thinks she should look like (that kind of purposeful vagueness is built into the performance). Therese isn’t disconnected, but she’s always slightly aloof, like she’s tuned to a different station as everyone else in her life, but she’s too polite to bring the difference up. Her encounters with Carol bring about change in subtle, granular fashion, and Rooney uses tone and body language to reveal it, because Haynes’ script isn’t interested in spoon-feeding. The performance’s riches feel spontaneous: a mischievous smile here, a demure look away there, a varied repertoire of shared silent exchanges. Mara has an innocent-sounding line towards the end (when she says “Oh, I don’t think so”), but in its force and inflection and through her poise, we can’t imagine the Therese from before ever thinking of saying something like that. She just wouldn’t.
For a romance, Carol has been criticized for being a cold movie. I think it’s more an honest one, depicting the lives of two people who constantly feel like they need to ask someone’s permission for something, but they don’t know and they can only fitfully articulate what. Haynes has made a movie about homosexual love that doesn’t make them shining martyrs to absorb the world’s abuse, but instead specific and flawed people who are trying very hard to be themselves, once they figure out what exactly what that means. The final scene of Carol can be read as being either very sweet or very sad, and the ambiguity is most appreciated. This is one of 2015’s best films.