The genius of Todd Haynes’ Carol is not the perfectly calculated distance it holds from its characters, but instead the rare moments when it lets the facade slip. Everything from the score, to the performances, to the cinematography conveys this in an incredibly heartbreaking way. Most of the time in this film, the characters and the filmmakers seem to be holding themselves back, but everyone in a while, they burst forth with a surprising amount of feeling.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young woman working at a department store when she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). There is an immediate attraction between the two and they tentatively move toward romance. However, at the same time, Carol is involved in a messy divorce that turns into an even messier custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). If Carol ever wants to see her young daughter again, it’s going to be hard for her to be with Therese at the same time.
This makes the film seem quite melodramatic, but the style of the film is anything but. The whole film is very subdued, and the visual style as well as the acting style plays into this. One way you can tell how subdued this film is, is the fact that I mentioning style so soon after starting my review; it’s really the centerpiece of the film (in a good way, I assure you). The 16mm cinematography by Ed Lachman doesn’t render the picture crystal clear and totally faithful to how things look in real life, there’s a bit of grain like an old photograph. The color is very muted, using strange greens and reds. Characters are often glimpsed from voyeuristic angles in POV shots, often through the lens of a camera or behind a glass window, but subtly obscured in some way.
The acting style is similarly removed. Cate Blanchett as Carol often seems remote, and you are aware of her performance almost throughout the whole movie. In some of those voyeuristic shots I mentioned previously, she is clearly aware that someone, the audience, Therese, or both, is watching her, and obviously posing to accommodate them. Rooney Mara is doing a similar thing in her part, but more watchful and tentative. It’s clear for most of the movie that she’s not really sure of herself.
The movie is not just simply its style though, even if that was my way into understanding exactly what the movie was going for. The movie is first and foremost about forbidden love, and how these two women have to hide from the rest of society. Carol is so hurt by the disconnect (in society’s eyes) between being a lesbian and being her daughter’s mother that she doesn’t show her true self too often. When she does, it’s witnessed by a man and used against her in the custody battle for her daughter. One identity threatens the other and no one will let her be both things at once, that is to say, herself.
Therese seems similarly conflicted, though it’s less from external pressures and seems to be more from within. She’s unsure of herself, especially in the beginning of the film, and though she’s in a relationship with a guy she doesn’t relate to him in any meaningful way and can’t really convey this to him. She is kind of an inert character by nature, she does what’s expected of her because she probably doesn’t think of doing anything different. I’ve heard criticisms that she’s kind of a boring character, but I think she discovers herself through her relationship with Carol and its marvelous to see. Not only does she gain more confidence in her personal relationships but she starts her career as a photographer, and by the end of the movie, is able to figure out what she wants. While Carol may be more suppressed by society, Therese withdraws into herself just by the nature of who she is.
If there is one fault with the movie, it is that its style takes a while to get used to. It’s hard to find a way into what a film is doing when it is trying to convey a distance between the audience and its main characters. However, as the film progresses, there are more and more isolated moments where the artifice of distance drops away and you see the more raw emotion. What makes it harder to watch in the beginning make the film all the more rewarding in the end.
The more I think about Carol the more I love it. Though I saw a few days ago, I’m aching to see it again. It’s a brilliant, brilliant film, and for all this talk about technical elements and style I believe it to be an emotionally enriching experience. Todd Haynes and all involved have really made the best kind of film here, one that is both an aesthetic challenge and an emotional journey.
“Ask me, things… Please…”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
For Further Reading:
Filmmaker Magazine interview with Ed Lachman
The New York Times review
The New Yorker article