Carol is a Visual Treat, but Falls Short of its Hype

CAROL (2015)
Directed by Todd Haynes
Weinstein Company, 118 minutes, R (nudity, sexual situations)
* * *

Carol has made just about every Top Ten list for 2015 and quite a few critics have proclaimed it the best film of the year. If the Academy Awards were solely about looking good, I'd add my voice to the chorus. Todd Haynes' look at lesbian love in the 1950s is absolutely stunning visually: full of dreamy camera angles, moody filters, and lush colors that pop through what is, in essence, film noir shot in color. No one has used red this effectively since Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence (1993), nor aimed the camera through rainy and smudged windows so well since Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese again). Haynes uses the latter technique to depict physical and emotional distancing and he uses it a lot, which is among the reasons Carol is something less than its surrounding hype. For a film about intense personal relationships, Carol often has a detached, even antiseptic feel. It is also, oddly, rather conservative.

As in his 2002 film Far From Heaven, a loose remake of a 1955 Douglas Sirk film, Haynes once again revisits the repressed 1950s, this time for a somewhat more faithful rendition of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, though Haynes begins with a conservative twist that is at odds with Highsmith's book: the meme of love at fist sight. In this case, pixie-like retail clerk Therese Relivet (Rooney Mara) is instantly smitten when Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) makes a holiday purchase at her counter. Carol's red lipstick, her stylish dress, and cool demeanor simply floor Therese. Two strokes of luck:  Carol absent-mindedly (or is it Gaydar?) left her calfskin gloves behind and a to-be-delivered purchase allows Therese to track her down. From there, a friendship blossoms that is really a prolonged striptease, since it's rather (too) obvious that both women lust for one another. Why not? Therese neither loves nor respects her controlling boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), and Carol's marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) is on the rocks. It also helps that Carol has had previous lesbian relationships, including one with her loyal friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). It would be full speed ahead to bed were it not for the fact that Carol also has an adorable daughter whom she loves deeply. Translation: it's complicated.

We are treated to subplots involving a road trip, the pressures of bourgeois respectability, custody battles, and Therese's dreams of becoming a photographer, but it's pretty obvious what must–at some point–happen. This is a bit of a problem. Haynes depicts the 1950s through a misty lens, which he extends to character development. There's not much dialogue in Carol and most of what we learn about any of the characters–especially Carol–is incidental. The intent, I believe, was to have his protagonists mirror the buttoned-down nature of 50s' society. But there is jarring inconsistency in the ways Haynes presents Therese, Carol, and Abby as supremely sure of themselves; in essence, he has interposed very modern mannerisms. More problematic still, in an age in which gay people met in enclaves and communicated by code, he has Carol and Therese making goo-goo eyes across rooms chockful with people who'd have to be encased in cement not to read their signals.

Haynes is himself gay, but he was born in 1961. I mention these things because it often seems as if Haynes wants to reinvent rather than present the 1950s. In Far From Heaven, for example, he imagined a 1950s in which it was possible for a husband to come out, and a white woman could at least contemplate a relationship with a black man. Neither would have been likely in Hartford, Connecticut, at a time in which the Nutmeg State had one of the most active Ku Klux Klan networks in the nation. Haynes celebrates his own sexuality, but he's also creating mythic predecessors for his own post-Stonewall, post-Harvey Milk, post-Gay Pride world. McCarthyism and the life in the closet appear more as backdrops, not the defining Zetigeist; hence gay life in the 1950s is cast as love that needs to overcome obstacles rather than the love that dare not speak its name. Carol is set in 1951, which is four years before there is even an official lesbian advocacy group (the Daughters of Bilitis). The fact that Ms. Highsmith wrote her 1952 novel under a pseudonym ought to tell you how she found the era.

History this is not! The good news? As mentioned, Haynes' exteriors are gorgeous. Although they don't have nearly as much to do as they should, both Blanchett and Mara are terrific, with Ms. Blanchett cementing her role as the heiress apparent to Meryl Streep's chameleon-like inhabitation of roles. Mara, though she looks a bit too much like Audrey Hepburn welded to Audrey Tatou, is also very strong as Therese. Kudos also to Paulson, who plays Abby as a font of defiance and inner resolve.

Bottom line: Carol is gooey eye candy, but it's a good film, not a great one. Rob Weir


Judy P. said...

We finally saw "Carol", and I have to agree with a lot of what you said about the film. One glaring omission in the movie, I thought, was any reference to the difference in class between the two women. I found it difficult to buy a relationship between any two people -- gay or straight -- where that large a gap (one galavanting around in mink coats, one a clerk in a department store) wouldn't have become a major issue.

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