Carol Dir. Todd Haynes

[The Weinstein Company; 2015]

Styles: melodrama, lesbian romance, 1950s
Others: Far From Heaven, Mildred Pierce

Whether or not you enjoy his work — and for the record, I do — you have to admire Todd Haynes for artistic integrity. Over his career, he has been fairly consistent with his cinematic interests and styles. When he isn’t operating as Todd Haynes the rock & roll experimentalist, he works as Todd Haynes the neo-Sirkian, Fassbinder-infused melodramatist. Carol obviously falls into the latter category of Haynes’ work, along with Far From Heaven and his HBO mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol details an affair between the title character (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy housewife, and Therese (Rooney Mara), a shopgirl and aspiring photographer, in 1950s New York. Like Haynes’s other works in this mode, Carol adopts both the period and the look of Sirk’s iconic melodramas. However, instead of exaggerated emotion, heightened psychology, and overtures towards camp, Carol marks a move towards subtlety and restraint in Haynes’s style.

Melodrama’s strength as a genre has been its ability to deal with taboo subjects through its familiar tropes. A filmmaker like Sirk distracted audiences with sumptuous Technicolor and plot contrivances so that he could critique a conformist and repressive society. However, while even an implied lesbian affair might have been quite shocking in the 1950s of Sirk, as well as Carol’s time setting, today an outright depiction of two women in love is more or less a cinematic, not to mention societal, norm. Far From Heaven appeared content to retrofit the 1950s domestic drama with explicit gay and racial themes, but with Carol, Haynes takes a different approach. The codes and signifiers melodrama once used to pass the censorship boards get transposed onto the characters themselves.

Although Carol and Therese find themselves drawn to one another, they never talk openly about their feelings; they form their bond while dancing around the real issues of their sexual desire and affection. Indeed, when they finally do consummate their relationship, it begins as a kind of mother-daughter moment: Carol stands behind Therese, helping her brush her hair, which is styled to look remarkably similar to Carol’s actual daughter. In this world, familial relationships offer an acceptable realm for women to love one another. Carol’s previous lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), functions as a sister — indeed, Carol’s daughter even refers to her as “Aunt” Abby to reinforce this idea.

As Carol slowly seduces Therese along their road trip, she also inducts her into a “secret society” of lesbian culture. Haynes films a fascinating exchange in a motel restaurant. A seemingly innocuous bible salesman (Cory Michael Smith) sits down at Therese’s table, their interaction somewhere between flirtatious and polite. Carol, displaced from her own seat, pulls a chair up alongside Therese. Through a series of looks and tones, Carol seems to reprimand Therese. What appears to be jealousy of a possible rival or more conventional relationship for Therese actually serves as a warning. Carol’s paranoia is earned. Yet, in a later scene, Haynes shows us how Therese has learned to sense the silent cues in this world, when she’s approached at a house party by a woman (Carrie Brownstein) who has already quietly signified her interest.

All this makes Haynes’s film both a fascinating character and cultural study. At the same time, he also skillfully incorporates more traditional melodramatic elements of class and gender into the narrative framework, as well as rich period details: in particular, Therese lighting her kitchen oven on to warm her apartment in the morning resonates. Overall, Carol proves an intriguing narrative piece that quietly pushes the viewer to reconsider notions of gay and outsider cultures in both the past and present. However, given all the film’s amazing attention towards rules and sub-rules in society, one wonders how many cinematic rules Haynes feels bound to honor. He cheekily snubs his nose at Chekhov’s maxim about the gun, but at the same time, one wonders how much further he would push the envelope if left purely to his own devices.

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