Director Todd Haynes has a real love/hate relationship with the 50s. He’s at once entranced by its style: the classy assortment of pastel hues on cars and wallpaper designs mixed up with the equally classy clothes and jazzy tunes of the time. But he also bemoans the oppression that came with it, the stifling of women and homosexuals that lay below the prettified exteriors. His brilliant 2002 film Far From Heaven showed this dichotomy. It was an ethereal mood piece, done in the style of classic film pulp from the era, but exposing all its hypocrisies and double standards.
Now, thirteen years later, Haynes treads similar turf with his newest film, Carol, also the name of a well-heeled New York lesbian (Cate Blanchett), divorcing her husband, who develops a romance with a department store clerk named Therese (Rooney Mara) around Christmastime. Carol husband is fighting her for custody of her daughter, and when he gets incriminating evidence of his wife’s dalliances with the new girl in her life, Carol is left without a leg to stand on. The girl, an aspiring photographer, is shattered when the relationship looks to be at and end, and so Carol’s dilemma appears to be a choice between the two true loves of her life.
I wouldn’t dream of disclosing the ending, but I will say it feels like a realistic ending, separate from any sense of politics or dramatic grandstanding, or get-what-you-deserve existentialism. There aren’t any obvious statements, either, like the ones in Heaven, nor does it possess that film’s savage ironies.
.No, Carol is first and foremost, a love story. The commentaries this time are
subtle, meant to be subordinate to the emotional connection between
Carol and Therese. What we get is a steadily involving, and evolving,
love story – the impediments to its fulfillment are no different really,
from those in any other film of this ilk. Haynes keeps his signature,
surreal style intact, and here it works to chronicle Therese’s odyssey
of bliss – but also confusion. The word “lesbian” is never once uttered
in the entire film; it wasn’t part of common parlance yet, but more
importantly, Therese wouldn’t know what one is. All her awareness allows
her is that one human being gratifies her sexually, emotionally and
intellectually. As such, she becomes the perfect metaphor for love,
regardless of gender or orientation, and regardless of era
I also admire how Haynes respects his characters’ intelligence. As intolerant as his male characters are, they’re not stupid brutes either, so we don’t waste screen time having them do the ABC’ of same-sex relationships. And Therese, though depicted as a shy ingénue, also knows want she wants, and doesn’t have to go through the whole rigmarole of being seduced. This is the work of a mature artist, dealing with once-taboo subject matter just as maturely.
And I thank God we still have filmmakers like this, apart from the sniveling, schoolboyish (and generally male) purveyors of Hollywood product these days. Hayes’ films are handcrafted works of both style and clarity – and both in the service of character. When you watch something from folks of this grain, you get a visceral feeling of passion. They want to tell these stories. Badly. And I, for one, want to watch.