Wrapping up 2015: Carol
It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when Carol and Therese fall for each other. Their romance begins with stops and starts. They connect instantaneously, when Therese (Rooney Mara), working that nightmare that is retail at Christmas, helps Carol (Cate Blanchett) choose a present for her 4-year-old daughter. Carol invites Therese out. Then she invites her over. Then she invites her on a road trip. To this point, they haven’t kissed, or even expressed much outward affection. Occasionally one’s hand finds the other’s shoulder or arm and lingers. It’s 1952. We sense that Carol is well-versed in pursuing romance with women in ways that don’t catch undue attention. We sense that this is all new to Therese, but that she is ready learn the ropes the moment her eyes first meet Carol’s.
Carol is the latest film from Todd Haynes, and it is as good a film as I’ve seen in the last year. It might very well be the best. It is my favorite sort of story: of people earnestly and humbly pursuing happiness. It shouldn’t be so hard to pursue such a clear mutual attraction. It goes without saying that there are plenty of obstacles standing in Carol and Therese’s way, even beyond the year they live in. Carol is married, and seeking a divorce. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) knows that she has had affairs with women
I’ve read critiques that Carol is a cold, even distant film. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Haynes presents the slow-burn of Carol and Therese’s relationship as a survival mechanism, one that Carol has clearly developed over the years and that Therese is willing to play along with. That doesn’t mean the film lacks emotion. It just asks the audience to look closely, to see how two people might come alive with one another and force themselves to contain it. Blanchett and Mara are both splendid here. Watch how Blanchett conveys Carol’s open flirting with Therese when they first meet, without saying or doing anything a judgmental, homophobic stranger might notice. Watch Mara in return, and how Therese notices that it’s flirting and reacts entirely with her eyes. This is not a distant film; it’s brimming with emotion, contained within two characters who are forced to try to repress it. As a result, moments where feeling overflows feel symphonic. In a time when so many films treat sex as a perfunctory plot point, Haynes makes a squeeze of a shoulder feel like a grand romantic gesture.
Have we become so accustomed to romantic cliche that we can’t comprehend a film that presents such an emotionally honest romance? One only encumbered from full bloom by outside forces? Haynes doesn’t downplay the dangers posed by homophobia in 1952. Carol carries a revolver with her; when Therese finds it, it feels like a wake up call. Men see Therese and barrel through her obvious disinterest. A boyfriend is gobsmacked when he sees that Therese has fallen for Carol; there’s no mistaking her attraction, he just seems indignant that his girlfriend is leaving him for a woman. We sense he’d care less if she was leaving him for a man. And Carol’s husband is a minefield for her future; he’s emotionally volatile, with full knowledge of her affairs and a willingness to use them to keep their daughter away from her. He sees Therese in their house, listening to music, and can barely contain his anger.
And yet, this is a far more hopeful film than not. It is rapt with the beauty of romance. This is the most sumptuous film of the year. Not a frame is wasted. In a year full of monumental achievements in cinematography, I hope it’s Edward Lachmann who takes home the Oscar. He and Haynes craft a painterly world, not in the usual sense of shimmering artifice, but in how aware the camera is of space, of light, and of color. My favorite shot of the movie is a short tracking shot of Therese moving around her apartment. It’s a drab, spare space, the sort of apartment we expect a twenty-something retail worker to have. The camera is positioned in the rear, and everything feels at a distance, like we’re observers peering in from a window, as in an Edward Hopper painting. Then Therese opens the door, and Carol is there, bathed in the hallway light, a burst of brightness and color in the far right corner of the shot. The image comes alive. We don’t need to hear a word to know exactly how Therese feels.