Carol is a sentimental picture that occupies a pragmatic world. Sequences traverse memory and images capture color and space with a rapturous affection for detail, working to negate the restrictiveness and desperation that defined the cultural climate of the 1950s. It’s a highly subjective work, reflecting the infatuations of its director like it indulges those of the characters, lighting the streets of New York City with a warm, painterly glow, adding a certain filmic resonance to the tribulations of its ill-omened couple. Yet, it’s this decorum that makes Carol so hard to latch onto, creating a separation between the handsomeness of the imagery and the emotional center of the story, manifesting a passivity that makes it easy to discern between homage and the real thing.
We open on Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) sharing what appears to be their final meal, the former holding back tears and the latter sternly resisting emotional impulse. Carol places her palm on Therese’s (pronounced “TA-REZ”) shoulder as she steps away from the table, the camera capturing her apprehension as she takes leave, revealing the intimacy of touch that will recur throughout the film. As Therese stares through the fogged glass of a yellow taxi cab, replaying the exchange in her mind, she remembers bits of their relationship in flashback, drifting through the past to the first time their eyes met and Carol touched the top of her hand.
The pair converged at Frankenberg’s department store, beholding each other through a sea of clamoring shoppers, sharing a moment despite the surging holiday rush. Director Todd Haynes embellishes their crush with ephemera, filling the screen with pastel tones, baby dolls and train sets, signifiers that isolate the story to a bygone era, despite the modernity of the subject matter. The trance-like narrative pace, which drifts between the present and an idealized past, matches the sexual attraction stoked by this chance meeting, insinuating a passion beneath the surface that doesn’t necessarily mirror the context of their conversation.
Politically, the nature of their discussion and forthcoming affair acts as an intersection of two different classes of people, one that not only smashes sexual barriers, but the boundaries defined by social status. Carol’s wealth and the confidence in her voice convey a certain prestige, reinforced by the fur coat draped over her shoulders and air of aloofness. Standing in stark contrast, Therese is indecisive and reserved, so eager to please that she adopts Carol’s attributes as they share their first meal, but elusive enough to have been “flung out of space.”
Both occupy their own figurative prisons, Therese trapped beneath her boyfriend’s expectations and Carol ensnared by a jealous husband and the opinions of high society. Gossip and disapproving glances still function as the scarlet letter in Todd Haynes’ body of work and he not only brings Carol’s love affair before the court of public opinion, but integrates her divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler) and the subsequent custody battle into the climax of the story. He also reiterates the covetous insecurities of his male characters from previous films, upping the ante by fashioning unapproachable, oafish bores out of his jilted beaus. These perceptions could be a component of Therese’s selective memory, but the ill-defined masculine roles feel shallow in comparison to the chemistry of the leads, creating villains instead of three-dimensional humans.
That said, Carol and Therese share countless revelatory moments, nearly enough to wash away inconsistencies and the lack of narrative drive. The most evocative is their jaunt from the city to rural New Jersey, expressed only through image and echoes of forgotten words. Ed Lachman’s shot selection reveals intimacy through the movement of Carol’s lips and Therese’s watchful eye, intoxicating the viewer as the camera pores over the ruffles of Carol’s coat and the gentle tapping of her fingers on the radio receiver. The overexposure of the images symbolizes an existential impermanence, displaying the passage of time through these faded escapades as they slowly evaporate from Therese’s memory.
Depictions of sexuality are just as poetic, seen only through arched backs and shoulders and heard through trembling breaths and passionate whispers. Lachman’s range as a photographer is impressive, manufacturing a hypnotic rhythm that permeates the progression of shots, often superseding the narrative. The twilight footage is the most sensual, transposing the passion of our lovers onto the environment, inspiring awe through plumes of white smoke coating a pink sky. A tracking shot of bumper-to-bumper congestion even elicits comparisons to Raoul Coutard’s traffic-jam sequence from Weekend, though Lachman prefers the sheen of chromatic motor cars over the politics of style and technique.
The tone diverges from the visual palette, stressing a lonely introspection that Rooney Mara’s performance and the gentle piano keys on the soundtrack masterfully embody. Mara is chameleonic, morphing into her character and never giving the appearance of affectation or insincerity. Aside from her complexity, Carol coasts on a beautiful surface devoid of flesh and blood. The meticulous design and evocation of the period are impeccable, but the film builds to a muted crescendo, one that may open up on multiple viewings, but makes for a middling first impression.
Carol (The Weinstein Company, 2015)
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Patricia Highsmith (novel) and Phyllis Nagy (screenplay)
Photographed by Edward Lachman