Written for the screen by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Todd Haynes
It begins and ends with a look. In that look is hesitance, longing, desire, confusion, confidence, conviction, hope. Even love. On NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, writer and critic Glenn Weldon described real chemistry between actors living in the look, elaborating on the attraction manifesting in the movement of the eyes. They dart around the person’s face, looking for flaws. And when none can be found, the gaze that is exchanged can be penetrating. Director Todd Haynes revels in the minutest of movements, looks, touches, and gazes in is new film Carol, a triumph of subtlety and seductive emotion.
Looking across the toy section in the department store where she works, young Therese (Rooney Mara) finds herself instantly intrigued by and infatuated with older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett). After the two make a small flirtatious exchange as Carol purchases a Christmas gift for her daughter, the older party departs, but not before turning around, her fur coat following the elegance of her movements and at the will of her body, to say, “I like the hat.” She smiles coquettishly, her hand pointing to an invisible hat, in reference to the Santa Claus hat perched somewhat awkwardly on Therese’s head. The expression on Therese’s face is a mix of awestruck and bewilderment.
Cate Blanchett carries, for lack of a better term, something with her. Elegance, assurance, and a kind of certainty which is appropriate for the character. It comes naturally to her, never allowing her careful, deliberate restraint to visibly seep into her face for obvious attention. Her talent is to be able to imbue her characters, from the regal queen of Elizabeth to the mentally unstable title character of Blue Jasmine, with a realism that allows her to conceive them as fully fleshed-out human beings, and it never feels calculated. Each blink of an eye, curl of the lip, finger dragged on the back of Therese is right, earned, and embedded in the text of the film. Blanchett makes Carol Aired, socialite and even subverter of social mores, a lived person.
Yet, restraint is key in the film. The rhapsodic nature of emotion in Todd Haynes’ films has always been a focal point of recognition for his work, but their subtlety goes unnoticed in comparison. His background in semiotics allows him to be a deconstructionist, particularly on the subject of identity, but his queer sensibility is carefully adjusted to paint the emotions and actions in his films with a beautifully rendered patience and control. In Far From Heaven, Haynes is not merely aping Douglas Sirk; he layers feelings one by one in each frame, every element a building block, creating a singular tapestry of resonance. Even in his joyously larger than life Velvet Goldmine, Haynes moderates how he creates a modern cinematic opera through light and music. And in Mildred Pierce, arguably his best film, he steeps his audience in the Depression era — despair, joy, and desperation doled out with discipline. In Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the constraints of 1950s New York forces the two women, and any other queer person that might exist in this universe for that matter, to use subtlety and restraint to their advantage as a language. Looks, touches, and the slightest movements are codes for love and desire.
Haynes seems particularly interested in looks most of all. An amateur photographer, Therese spends her time trying to capture moments with her camera. Much of the photography we see from her as-yet-compiled portfolio is of strangers’ backs, their faces turned away. But with Carol, any look is important for Therese; especially looking into the camera, into the heart of this photographer. Frozen in time, it’s the admiration, affection, and undeniable appeal of Carol. “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability, precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it. All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt,” wrote Susan Sontag. The transience of the inexpressible connection between Carol and Therese is suddenly rendered without words and with precision and perfection in the photographs, secured forever and made tangible.
This, too, is true of Haynes’ photographs. Haynes described the look of Mildred Pierce as being inspired by photographer Saul Leiter, who reveled in looking through windows, finding and losing faces in a crowd, utilizing the fog, smoke and condensation in his tools of construction, and even more than in Mildred Pierce, Haynes applies this aesthetic to Carol. We are only allowed in the interior of Therese and Carol’s minds when they are in a car together; otherwise, we are like the two of them, always looking from outside of the window, through the door frame – blues and reds beautifully saturated – recognizing that, in this present situation, their love is unattainable but at arm’s length. The car seems to be the great equalizer for them, in terms of class, in terms of accessibility of one another: they are at their most comfortable when in this safe haven and on the move. The ecstasy that the two feel for one another articulates itself through extreme close-ups of the minutest details of the other’s body. It’s an interesting form of objectification through the queer gaze, the segmentation of their bodies for a queer audience, but it expresses infatuation in the clearest of ways. They’re no longer at a distance from each other, or from the audience.
Mara, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for the film, reveals herself as the second coming of Audrey Hepburn, her performance multifaceted in its combination of naiveté, reserved enthusiasm, and a determination to not be boxed in. She’s similar to Carol in that way, in their disdain towards the patriarchal oppression that hangs ever so precariously over their heads. Yet, despite Carol’s maturity, she never condescends to Therese. Mara is not so foolhardy as to reduce her character to that brand of precious guilelessness. On the contrary, the inexperience of her character seems to push Mara to explore more fully how her identity has been shaped by the society around her and how that impacts her passion for Carol.
Carol’s emotions come in waves and ripples, never presumptuous and only overwhelming in the best way. Amplified by Carter Burwell’s exquisite score, the film is at its most ravishing when no one says a word. Ballad “You Belong to Me” is muted against the intoxicating rush of rapture and elation and ardor. And the film begins and ends with a look. The look. The look of love.
The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.