Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Dec 24, 2015

Carol (2015)

by Will Ross
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One could be forgiven for expecting Carol to be a 40s/50s film pastiche, both in advance and in its opening minutes. There are at least two images that explicitly encourage this reading in the first five minutes. First, a secret lover places their hand on their companion’s shoulder to say a warm but surreptitious goodbye in a public space, a reference to David Lean’s 1945 star-crossed romance Brief Encounter. Second, green- and red-coloured stoplights illuminate a character sitting in a darkened car to symbolize memories of bygone passions, a visual borrowed from Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 film of love relived across a lifespan, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The corroborating evidence mounts fast: Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, and Todd Haynes’s past few projects all use films from the mid-20th century as aesthetic reference points.

But even more than I’m Not There’s anthology of period styles or Far From Heaven’s attempted modernization of Douglas Sirk’s social themes, Haynes adopts a modernist approach towards direction here. The super-16mm cinematography immediately disqualifies it from the look of 50’s studio fare, as do its impressionistic dissolves. Its KieĊ›lowski-esque coloured lighting firmly roots it as a work of past-1970s cinematography, and its soundtrack includes anachronistic recordings of standard tunes (e.g. a late-60s recording of “Silver Bells” played during the Christmas of 1952). Carter Burwell’s customarily repetitious and vaguely post-modern musical score seals it: this is not an emulation of what an adaptation of The Price of Salt might have looked like were it made in the 1950s. It is a romance, distanced (but not removed) from the social politics of both its subject’s period and its own time.

The plot of Carol is distilled Haynes. A gay couple — one young and naive, one middle-aged and self-consciously refined — fall in love at a time when it was easy to use legal means to suppress and discourage that love. The title character (Cate Blanchett), a married mother with a history of lesbian infidelities and a pending divorce to her still-smitten and separated husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), finds that the latter is threatening to take full custody of her daughter. Unless, that is, she stays with him and renounces her own sexual nature.

To stave off this impending dilemma, Carol invites the shy and assentive girl Therese (Rooney Mara) to join her on a road trip. Though it is unspoken, the implication is clear: Therese is being invited to leave her boyfriend and consummate a romantic and sexual affair with an experienced woman. The movie chugs into and out of this vacation with surprising smoothness, bringing together characters divided not only by age, but by class and even ethnic background. The compounding of social differences between lovers surfaced before in Heaven, and it’s borrowed from Sirk and Fassbinder, and it’s an effective way to incorporate sociopolitical conflicts into a story without having them insist upon themselves. For Carol’s characters, political injustice is not a bogeyman to be fought against, not just a paradigm. They are a political reality, an ideology whose presence is so ubiquitous and deeply felt that it can be bidden through the subtlest of allusions, as in one phone conversation early in the film:

“I want to ask you things, but I don’t know if you want that." 
“Ask me things, please.”

Carol stresses things to emphasize the hidden and necessarily euphemistic nature of her sorrows. The film is politically effective largely because it does not seek to ascribe sinister, pointed motives to poisonous social constructs, but to show how characters navigate them and reinforce them for personal reasons. Harge, for his part, takes advantage of them to manipulate his fading marriage back into his control, but there are hints that Carol’s affairs were lovingly tolerated and forgiven by him for a very long time. This is not to say that what Harge did was right, or even that he forgave Carol’s affairs for entirely magnanimous reasons. But the character displays how incompatible genuine compassion and received wisdom can be, especially with the help of Chandler’s performance channeling the character’s actions as driven more through pain, confusion, and betrayal than rage or megalomania.

Next to Harge, Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacey) is narrowly presented as a small-minded, selfish bigot. He presumes she wants to come on a trip to Europe with him, presumes she loves him, presumes she wants to marry him, even though every assertion he makes of those is met with panicked silence. It’s an effective foil for Therese, one that exposes her excessive docility, but the dynamic is one way, and Richard’s motives are strictly domineering. It’s not so much that it’s invalid to have a character who displays only these qualities, but when another (Harge) expresses those same qualities with deeper psychology and human sympathy, it makes Richard seem almost redundant. Ironically, as a character who views his girlfriend as an extension of himself, the script treats him as a mere extension of his girlfriend’s character.

But in a film with so many moments of warm, simply felt but deeply effective emotions between its two leads (neither of whom have ever turned in better performances), this is a forgivable misstep. Carol only truly drops one ball, with Carter Burwell’s musical score. Throughout his filmography, Burwell has often used his scores to engross the audience in each film's culture and period, but I've yet to hear him compose or develop an affecting romantic melody, and the latter is what's necessary here. The music never out-and-out tanks a scene, but it usually seems to keep to a holding pattern, preserving the effects of the movie’s sensuous visuals without enhancing them.

And how on earth have I gone this far without mentioning the film’s exquisite costuming and production design, perhaps its most decisive triumph of craft? There is an ellipsis late in the film, and when we see one of the characters for the first time in several months, her dramatically changed appearance — a shift from the dark, cool, and deferent clothes she wears through most of the film to assertive beiges and brown plaids, along with her carefully designed and attention-getting hairstyling — tells us everything about how she’s grown in one instant of first impressions. It’s this accumulation of designs, as much as its simple but richly emotional screenplay and perceptive camera placements, that makes such a tender and moving tearjerker, as well as such a smart one. It’s a film that builds slowly and carefully to its surprising ending, and fully earns the corresponding moment when your heart leaps out of your chest and crawls around on the floor.

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