11 01 2016

CarolEarly in Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” a group of young adults sits up in the projection booth a movie theater. As Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” flickers on the screen, one astute observer sits taking notes while the others fool around. He remarks that he seeks to find “the correlation between what they [the characters] say and how they feel.”

Most people watching “Carol” will find themselves in a similar position. With the film’s gentle pace gradually yet methodically moving the action along, every moment becomes dissectible. Haynes, however, does not simply stop conveying the souls of his characters with words. (Neither, for that matter, did Wilder.) Each composition is a delicate painting, gracefully staged to emphasize, contradict or contextualize the action taking place within it.

The frames throughout “Carol” tell a rather perverse narrative. On the one hand, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) are given vast amounts of space to move about on screen. The surroundings do not seem to claustrophobically encase this pair of illicit lovers, though the pressures of a disapprovingly baffled society try their best to do just that. Yet, at the same time, both are given so much “headroom” at the top of the frame that they become minimized within it.

So free, but so small. This paradox resonates for both the 1950s setting of the film as well as the 2010s audience viewing it.

“Carol” finds Todd Haynes working once again in his sweet spot of recreating a photorealistic past while addressing entirely contemporary concerns. Though he has yet to make a film set in the present day, he continually finds ways to evoke a sense of immediacy with forms of storytelling otherwise regarded as outmoded and the disregarded. Working within the so-called “woman’s film,” the classical melodrama as well as the romance, Haynes finds rich emotionality in reorganizing various elements to focus on female experience and pleasure.

Cate Blanchett in Carol

In many ways, “Carol” is a standard love story that finds an understated elegance in that simplicity. Therese and Carol meet, make an instant connection, test to see if the feelings are mutual, and then explore their passion. Their relationship is fraught with obstacles, of course, and the fact that same-sex couples were relegated to the shadows in Eisenhower-era America is only the beginning.

Their differences in age and class prove every bit as problematic as their likeness of gender, both to the world judging them and to the lovers themselves. Therese seeks someone who can help her complete a coming-of-age narrative; she needs a muse for her photography as well as a ticket out of her humdrum temporary department store clerking job. Carol, on the other hand, need someone to take care of as she braces to lose custody of her daughter. The question of who will cede ground and make sacrifices makes for agonizing viewing.

This conflict is scarcely verbalized, and if it is, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy only allows it in the most fragile of dialogue. Most of the heavy lifting is left to Blanchett and Mara, who must convey such deep torment in the subtler shades of their performances. It must come out in the careful delivery of a line, in the silence in between verbal exchanges or – most frequently – in the longing gazes captured so beautifully by director of photography Ed Lachman.

Haynes gets the calibration so precise that the film becomes almost airtight, practically sealing off the audience from ever really inhabiting the film despite many points of entry. But if we’re just left on the outside to observe a movie drift in front of our eyes, it should definitely be something as sumptuously and masterfully constructed as “Carol.” B+3stars



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