Editor’s Notes: Carol is currently open in limited release.
The new romantic drama, Carol, opens with seductive allure, drifts swiftly for a moment’s time engaging our curiosity, then prematurely slides into a state of abandoned promise. It is an almost-success due to the show-over-tell consistency of Phyllis Nagy’s script (based on the novel, “The Price of Salt”, by Patricia Highsmith) and the delicately defined performances of the film’s two leading women, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Further, musical composer Carter Burwell’s airy blend of piano, oboe, and strings instil a clouded atmosphere of loneliness with undertones of accumulating uplift – altogether tapping into an emotional tempo the film, finally, cannot sustain.
The new romantic drama, Carol, opens with seductive allure, drifts swiftly for a moment’s time engaging our curiosity, then prematurely slides into a state of abandoned promise.
My critical sights are aimed at director Todd Haynes, the man behind 2002’s insipid Far From Heaven and the okay HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, two works that most resemble Carol’s period (early 1950’s New York) and dramatic focus. Like Heaven and Pierce, Carol presents – if not examines – a woman’s efforts to pursue her own interests – in work and in love – in spite of conventional society’s socially-built obstacles and taboos that are piled against her. The movie is about Therese Belivet’s (Mara) friendship and affair with Carol Aird (Blanchett), who hails from a higher stratum of society.
Carol is the wealthy socialite, an affectation of beauty: a fair mink-coated lady with coiffed blond hair and a gentle touch. Therese, on the other hand, is a jittery working-class young woman with short dark hair and an unassuming smile. She works at a department store, where she meets Carol who is looking to buy a Christmas gift for her daughter. First, the two exchange suggestive glances from afar, then engage in harmless shoptalk up close, all while an undeniable sexual tension brims beneath the surface of their conversation. The warmly lit shopping gallery, a public place for everyday families and happily married couples, sharply contrasts the implied attraction of the women’s private interaction – the juxtaposition echoes the department store tryst in the prologue of 2012’s The Master.
This sequence’s setup relies on non-verbal exchanges, enticing the audience’s observations and voyeuristic tendencies. The film begins with a beautifully spiralling camera movement from a sewer grille to the female lovers enjoying tea at a luxurious lounge. During their conversation, Therese’s estranged boyfriend interjects, inviting her to a Christmas party. His interruption, which causes the lovers to part ways pretending they are barely acquaintances, is a direct homage to David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Only, Haynes questionably uses this scene as a bookend, making it predictable, and thus defeating its dramatic purpose: to sever the central romance with a heartbreaking, unexpected anticlimax.
Another major problem is the “climactic” sex scene is watered down. Haynes and his editor Affonso Gonçalves seem to be cutting around what they should be showing, truncating the passionate moment with coy cuts and dissolves.
This is Haynes’s specialty-of-a-sort: stripping Old Hollywood melodramas, particularly the films of Douglas Sirk (Far From Heaven is an obvious ripoff of 1955’s All That Heaven Allows), of their emotional richness – a postmodern subversion? I find this to be a smug conceit, in the vein of Steven Soderbergh, who invariably takes the emotion out of genre (The Limey, Side Effects, Haywire) to prove his art pretence. Both filmmakers are morticians as much as they are directors: they drain the blood (that is to say, the colour and vitality) from their movies and inject the mood and colour palette with an antiseptic-sort-of stylistic formaldehyde.
Simply, Haynes is too clinical. And why? That approach works against the very thrill – the thrill of newfangled romance – that Carol should evoke. Shot by Edward Lachman, Carol is lit drably and desaturated, muddying the complementary colours found in the costumes and set design. Aesthetically, it makes the movie frustratingly detached, and you cannot help but feel this is Haynes’s calculation. I kept thinking of Terence Davies’s superior The Deep Blue Sea, which used bleak visuals (saturated to preserve their richness) to paint a psychological portrait of a woman’s loneliness and despair in postwar London – emotional states that Davies successfully plumbed without a heavy hand.
I should say, Haynes is no hack (and neither is Soderbergh, who is a good technician). He can move his camera gracefully (Carol has some incredible spiralling tracking shots) and conduct a tension-filled scene that is played at a lower key. For instance, one scene at Carol’s home, where Therese plays piano in her company, is particularly well-done. Here, Haynes builds tension by paying special attention to the two characters’s hands: he shows Therese tapping the piano keys and drifting off into her own little world as Carol pours them drinks and finally rests a hand on Therese’s shoulder, taking delight in her musicianship. This focus on hand gestures creates sexual intrigue worthy of Hitchcock’s power of suggestion.
Interestingly, Kyle Chandler gives the film’s best performance as the script’s weakest character. Chandler brings a sort of pathetic humanity to Harge Aird, Carol’s pouty, controlling husband. Much like Dennis Quaid’s closet case in Far From Heaven, Harge is a simplistically drawn character with a very basic, easy-to-read psychology. Much like the other males in this movie, Harge is a cartoon of tormented masculinity, fitful on the outside and painfully needy on the inside. Unable to leverage Carol’s emotions, he threatens to take full custody of their daughter – a subplot that culminates in Blanchett delivering the film’s most steadfast dialogue. Harge, though, does not know how to treat a lady other than as his property; in a way, the male characters’s shortcomings could be a catalyst for Carol and Therese’s affair.
However, Carol’s second half is where it falters. The two women embark on a road trip to Chicago, breaking free of the big city’s chains. This is where a sense of liberation should charge Carol’s storyline, but the movie loses all momentum, forsaking the earlier scenes of acute character observation. In that stretch, only one element engages: Therese’s acquaintanceship with a salesman. This offers a revealing scene at a restaurant table where Carol, for all her beauty, almost becomes intimidated by the man’s charm – and we find out her unease toward the man is not exactly misplaced.
Another major problem is the “climactic” sex scene is watered down. Haynes and his editor Affonso Gonçalves seem to be cutting around what they should be showing, truncating the passionate moment with coy cuts and dissolves. This scene should mark a true moment of sexual liberation, but Haynes backs off when he should be pushing forward. He is outmatched by Abdellatif Kechiche, who directed the two lengthy lesbian sex scenes in 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. His scenes showed the lovers messily exploring each other’s body and huffing and wheezing to orgasm. Incorrectly praised for his “frankness”, Haynes fails to lay bare this important moment of sexual expression. Further, the film’s final reunion is almost as cheap and unsatisfying. While what’s shown may very well be the conclusion of Highsmith’s novel (I have not read it), with this fade to black you can nearly hear the helium being let out of the room.
Carol is not an awful movie, nor is it bad. In fact, there are many sequences that give it promise. Despite the comparisons, though, the movie is not good old-fashioned melodrama. On one hand, the movie lacks Sirk’s emotional force and, on the other, rejects the values of that era as if to preach “wow, look how un-evolved we were”. This may explain the film’s silly last shot, which manufactures a sense of progressive hope. This is Haynes’s hokey, moralizing way of restoring modern social values to a outmoded past. Carol is, in that sense, fashionably overrated.