Carol (2015). France, 118 minutes. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, and Sarah Paulson.
Todd Haynes has done a remarkable job bringing Carol to screen. The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s intriguing title The Price of Salt (1952) and adapted for the screen by US/British dramatist and director Phyllis Nagy. She actually did the adaptation 15 years ago and waited until the time was right for the production of Carol last year. Film 4, one of the production companies for the film, approached Nagy to do the screenplay. Elizabeth Karlsen, Christine Vachon, and Stephen Wooley produced the film and it was a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or at the 68th Cannes Film Festival that ended May 24, 2015. The film went home with two prizes: the Queer Palm and a best actress award for Rooney Mara (shared with Emmanuelle Bercot for Maïwenn’s Mon Roi).
The mise-en-scène is glutted with artifacts from the ’50s, many of which look like they were newly acquired for the movie from antique shops. The vintage dolls on the shelves of a department store look fragile and not like merchandise for young girls who go shopping with their mothers.
The narrative is a haunting one that touches on homophobia. Very quickly we learn that “out” lesbians at the time were only known to each other and their private circles and met in secret clubs. Carol (Cate Blanchett) and her lover Therese (Rooney Mara) are both in loveless relationships or entanglements that do not inspire them. But the word “lesbian” never comes up in the film when it comes to their relationship. Leaving a man for a woman was an affront to how society had been calibrated. When Therese is asked if she is a lesbian, she adamantly denies it, so powerful is the taboo. According to Todd Haynes, the film will get by the censors when it is released because the love scenes between Carol and Therese are tastefully done.
When asked at the Cannes press conference why there were so few films made about lesbians, Todd Haynes explained that the film market is geared towards men not women. However, Details magazine published a statistic almost a decade ago that when a film about lesbians is actually geared towards lesbians, box office sales increase by 10%. This is a nifty detail that Haynes should be aware of, and for the most part at Cannes this year anything that catered to women, such as talks about women in film, were standing room only.
Cate Blanchett gives one of her best performances to date as Carol. The narrative looks primarily at the relationship between her and Therese. Carol is a stay-at-home mom in the midst of an unhappy relationship, and Therese is a budding photographer who works in the toy section of a department store. Carol is the kind of mystical creature who is clearly in a vulnerable position but does not want to put her feelings into words. Therese wants to ask her questions and eventually Carol lets her. Therese’s inner intensity at the prospect of this relationship is comprised of an entourage of penetrating stares, and I would imagine that these soulful looks went into her award for best actress. Carol tries to hold things together in the midst of her unhappy marriage. Therese is in awe of the life she is beginning with Carol and is clearly enraptured beyond words. Their relationship commands the film and is the backbone of the narrative arch that compels spectators to listen to their dialogue, while offhandedly taking note of the makeup, costumes, appliances, shop fronts, automobiles, and furnishings of the time. There is a lot to take in for this re-creation of the American 1950s milieu.
Ultimately, Todd Haynes makes spectators surrender to the love story. On the final days of the Cannes screenings, crowds swarmed to stand in block-long queues because of the rave reviews the film received in the press. It is not clear, however, whether they were there to learn about the silent rampages of homophobia that are part of the film’s message or to watch two women in love, something that is still a voyeuristic thrill. The media savvy Weinstein & Co will push the film at the box office and for awards shows. For Cannes, narratives about lesbians, such as Palme d’Or winner La Vie D’Adèle (2013), have been hugely successful, so Carol was a front-runner from the beginning. Lesbian women have had less exposure in film than gay men, but their stories have been overwhelmingly powerful when they do appear.
Carol and Therese always have men to rely on and they are constantly being hit on so that they are (we are) absolutely sure of their choice to be together. Therese notices other lesbians through their clothing and hairstyles, but neither she nor Carol look like “one of them.” The elegant Fifth-Avenue-dressed Carol has had other lovers, in particular one since she was a child, Abby (Sarah Paulson), who stands up for her in a close relationship. Because of the circumstances surrounding Carol’s imminent divorce and loss of custody of her daughter for being a lesbian, Carol has a hard time committing to Therese, so the relationship is quite problematic. Therese rather quickly becomes a photographer for the New York Times, and Carol quickly becomes a buyer. Therese gets an expensive camera from Carol who in turn gives her a Billie Holiday record. Materialism is a large part of this film. Will they wind up sharing an uptown flat in Manhattan? How could they not?
Patricia Highsmith’s novels have been put to film before. Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is far from the outwardly gay character that Carol seems to be. Todd Haynes does a great job with Highsmith’s characters’ sexualities and lifestyles. It seems to work better with lesbians who have discarded their male suitors than for gay serial murderers.
Carol should perform well at the box office and beyond because Blanchett and Mara command every scene they are in. In the end we are left with a stylistic mise-en-scène furnished with all the appropriate items of the time and a love story that is made totally believable by the actors. This is the kind of film that dreams are made of, and the love story enchants. Unlike their characters, Blanchett and Mara are not make believe. Blanchett made it clear that she had many women friends, but no lovers, a question on many journalists’ minds at Cannes. But she said, as did Mara, that it would be foolish to ignore that in several countries homosexuality is a crime and that the message of the film is very important. As an actress, she said, it was her job to identify with the characters she plays and make them real, not to play herself in real life. Blanchett playing a lesbian was hot stuff at the press conference and consequently has raised interest in the film. Mara has already gotten recognition for playing Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual hacker in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Both actresses provide a compelling onscreen chemistry that is rare in film. No doubt Therese and Carol will go down in film history as one of the best three-dimensional portraits of two women in love.
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