Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'Flung out of Space': Todd Haynes' Carol (Review)

Carol refers to Therese in the movie as 'my angel, flung out of space'.
But it is the film itself which seems to float in a liminal place.
[Note: this review includes some direct and implied spoilers. Italicized words that aren't movie titles, are linked to outside sites.]

Ever since I first stumbled upon news of Carol some time last winter, I have been sort of leaning toward it in a posture of waiting. I joined the fan pages (Carol has one of the best-maintained and most creative fan pages of any movie I've seen). I followed every clip or behind-scenes mini doc that turned up on youtube, including those blurry heartfelt but roughly assembled tributes by fans overusing second or third generation bootlegged footage, while a late 40s ballad croons. The list of these 40s and 50s standards that run in the background of the movie was released early on and I bought each tune separately, compiling my own soundtrack and putting it on in my car, learning all the songs; wonderful songs by Billie Holiday and Helen Foster and Jo Stafford. I took away with me on summer holiday The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel she wrote as Clair Morgan, on which the movie is based. Rereading it brought back the youthful memories of the first time that story came into my life and the people associated with that. In May, I waited on Twitter for the first Cannes reviews to drift in. Traveling that day, I got out of the car and stood by a field with my phone at the exact hour that I knew the first press screening came down. Refreshing my feed, I waited, while a cow stared. Then the accolades started to come: 140 character rhapsodic bleats, for me like the first transmissions of men on the moon. When it didn't come to TIFF, I observed longingly as it played through literally every other fall festival on two continents. And then, in late December, it finally arrived in Toronto where I have now seen it. Twice.


And although I have always been predisposed to love it, I had a sense of art entering the veins and swimming upstream. I had that experience in 1993 when I first saw Kieslowski's Three Colours: Blue. I had it in 2011 with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. And now I've had it again.

One of the best B-rolls from any movie any time, underscores the
low-budget simplicity of the filmmaking. Go here to see the video.
This film has already inspired some of the finest writing about film that has happened this year and also some of the dreamiest. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. Justin Chang in Variety. Describing the impact of Carol (Cate Blanchett) on Therese (Rooney Mara) in their first meeting over a Christmas department store counter in 1950s New York, Village Voice critic Stephanie Zecharek writes, "When Carol drifts into view, she's like a waft of perfume, with a woman attached." I admire the opening paragraph of Darghis' review in which she places the narrative convention-breaking mutual attraction among the two women, into a variety of artistically opposing trends, from the literary to the art historical. Chang's opening paragraph, also describing in detail the first encounter of the two women, is equally emotionally evocative. (But read to the end of both reviews - they're so well written!) Nor have the poetic accolades been reserved to critics. In awarding the astonishing work of cinematographer Ed Lachman (whose decision to shoot in Super 16mm film is a rare gift to us as an audience), the Camerimage Film Festival in Poland named the movie's "aristocratic grace and elegance." Whether it's in Twitter bleats, or long rhapsodic blog posts like this one, everyone who sees this film feels compelled to write about it.

Haynes has said that he was influenced in his aesthetic for Carol
by American 50s photographer Saul Leiter. On the left, an untitled
image for Harper's Bazzar by Saul Leiter. On the right, Carol
seen inside a cab, in the movie Carol.
Many of them want to reach first of all for the obvious comparison to Todd Haynes' earlier film Far From Heaven. I did this too, in my first post on Facebook back in May before I had seen it, because at a glance and without knowing, that's what you think you're going to get. But it doesn't actually work - that comparison. (As the director has tried to say a number of times, including in this NYFF onstage interview.) What the two movies have in common is their social context - the 1950s, but that's it. Far From Heaven was an homage to the late 50's Douglas Sirk robustly colourful dramas of that era. By contrast, inspiration is actually owed in Carol to the early 50s/late 40s gritty landscapes and portraits of the photographers of the post-war period. Haynes has said that he looked at the work of Saul Leiter, and yes! this is exactly what we see - both the earlier painter version of Leiter and the later fashion photographer version. (Here is a good brief primer on Leiter.)

The use of colour in some scenes evokes the colour
work of photographer Helen Levitt and the  

late period of Vivian Maier.
The Leiter-style view of city streets through cab and building windows is very evident in influence of a number of Carol scenes in which we see events almost voyeuristically through vehicle windows or the windows of restaurants. In one of the more idyllically happier scenes when they are on the road together, the couple is seated near a diner window as Carol opens a gift. Here we are looking the other direction, out through an unusually bright and vivid window onto a nameless street, even as Therese tells us that she could get used to having a city entirely to herself. In a different scene, the single flash of red colour on a brown street shot from above, singles Carol out of the drab array of New York sidewalk life in the style of Helen Levitt or the very first colour work (as far as we know) of Vivian Maier.

And yet somehow the movie avoids feeling like a pastiche, a survey of art styles. Here credit goes to Production Designer Judy Becker and Costume Designer Sandy Powell. Holy smoke curling gently from a lit cigarette. It is hard to imagine a more compatibly unified design sensibility. While the sets are muted in a late 40s post-war grey-brown, so real that you feel you can reach out and touch the steel leg of the motel breakfast table, the contrasting energy of Carol's chic ensembles allows a feeling of relief and animation, even while the richer woman's wardrobe is elegantly reserved. The fur coat is the only opulent moment and even the sandy colour here is perfect. Moving among odd looking dolls at the toy department where Therese works, Carol is indeed like a waft of perfume with a woman attached.

Later in a dialogueless scene where Therese photographs Carol buying a Christmas tree, Carter Burwell's haunting Philip Glass-like score emotionally details a moment when Carol, adjusting her fur coat around her, momentarily sees Therese photographing her. What Manohla Dargis calls the 'erotic power of the gaze', is plainly offered here from one woman to another and without much awareness on the part of the gaze-er.

Blanchett's nuanced performance is measured, rather than mannered, a very delicate thing to accomplish in a period-drenched movie like this one and a choice few other actors would be capable of. Her performance is so nuanced and brilliantly layered that many might miss these subtleties, looking for more overt signs of 'acting'. Or they might mistake her stylized choices of character behaviour for something contrived. But Blanchett has always had the extraordinary capacity to hold contrasting styles in one performance and orchestrate them powerfully. I remember seeing her in a Sydney Theatre Company (at BAM) performance of Hedda Gabler near-exactly ten years ago in which she held both the manipulative and vulnerable sides of the brittle title character in an equally firm grasp. I wrote about her capacity for this kind of brilliance, even then.

She is alternately assured and uncertain, in a way that makes clear how the era required one to mask the other. Carol's dilemma brings her slowly to a very fragile place - there are so many times in this performance where my heart breaks for her, and they are mostly outside of the 'big' scenes. One moment occurs when she is finally reunited with her daughter and cries out in relief and a kind of desperate joy. But Blanchett also finds complex grade even in the seduction where Carol is feeling a bit more in control. Here, the moments of pleasure, excitement and uncertainty happen almost contrapuntally to her gestures of calculation. I think of the contrast, for instance, of her juggling the phone while cooking, unquestionably pleased that the employee who sent the gloves is Therese and hurrying her into the promise of a lunch date. Then there is the lunch date itself where the character wants to charm - so the actor has chosen the stylized gestures. In a moment when Therese says she is sorry about Carol's divorce, Carol replies "don't be" with six subtextual lines of dialogue running underneath the only two spoken words. This is vintage Blanchett, and part of what makes this performance one of her very finest ever. Carol is barely holding her life's joys and sorrows together but is driven forward uncontrollably into them, in a way that led many married lesbians of this era to very dark and depressed states of mind. (Biographies of Highsmith make clear the toll of double life: some of the women the writer was associated with or had as lovers, ended their lives in suicide, including the woman whom Highsmith encountered in a department store and who inspired the book -- though they never actually knew each other. For years, lesbian love stories of this era ended with a character killing themselves -- think The Children's Hour. The Price of Salt was a tremendous departure from this for its time.) In a moment when Therese haltingly says over the phone to Carol that she would like to "ask you things, but I'm not sure you want that", Blanchett's hunch over the receiver on her end is almost agonizing as she murmurs back, "ask me things. Please." (See clip above left.) The emotional map in both characters is out of the darkness of clandestine feelings or relationships and into the light of love.

Rooney Mara's natural innocence as Therese moves in the context of
the porcelain dolls she half-heartedly sells in the film's opening scene.
 
Mara's performance too, is a startlingly nuanced and carefully planned creation, from its ingenue and childlike beginnings to its sophisticated endings. The story is theoretically Therese's but Haynes' decision to slowly change the point of view works brilliantly to unite them around a central moment of decision. In addition to her own beautiful hesitations and seemingly effortless naturalism with the character, Mara knows how to balance the scenes with Blanchett, how to both accompany, complement and contradict her co-star's energy, the way a fine pianist supports a virtuoso soloist. And yet, within her own robust moments, she fills the screen. There are many times when Therese simply gazes at Carol in wonder, unable to quite comprehend her beauty and/or transfixed by it. She is a beautifully written character and Mara doesn't miss a beat of what's been given to her. One detail picked up from the book is Therese's desire to take care of Carol which is not something she can really offer her lover at this time. Each time she expresses the wish to 'do something' for Carol in a moment of crisis it is wholly from the heart, making Carol's clearly drawn lines in the sand between their relationship and the horror with with her husband's legal manoeuverings all the more heartbreaking. Yet Mara seems to understand that Therese is finding herself through these moments of wanting to take care of Carol. They come spontaneously and abundantly, the exact reverse of her behaviour with Richard her boyfriend.

The extraordinary gaze each gives the other in the final moment of the film is one of the most love-drenched and also soberest endings to a romantic movie ever. It is exactly the moment of arrival into their own space. In the goodbye letter she had written earlier, Carol even then looks ahead to some unknown moment in time of reunion. "I want you to imagine me there to greet you like the morning sky, our lives stretched out ahead of us, a perpetual sunrise." By the time that possibility actually arrives, we the audience have completely forgotten that she had dared to dream of it. But Therese has not. Mara's moment of the character making that breathstealing walk in the restaurant is a way of showing us that Therese has hung on those lines of Carol's, even as she has in all outward appearances, let go of her.
 And just as Kristen Stewart surprised us in Clouds of Sils Maria, Mara, who has a much longer track record of impressive performances, still surprises us in Carol. (Interesting, too, that both these performances come as the young actors are playing ordinary young women, watched and loved by older more famous female actors playing established doyennes.)

The sense of modulation and contrast is the heartbeat of Carol. Not just in the intimacy of the women but in the larger landscape on which they are set down, like the human-behaving dolls that line the counters of Frankenberg's. Every good relationship drama should have a central contrasting energy. A vibrating from one thing to another. In Carol, it is as if the era is moving along one trajectory, and the relationship along another and they are forced to intersect not just by the oppressive nature of a society's understanding of morality, but by the behaviour of people when they love each other. At a critical and unforgettable scene in a lawyer's office, Carol says to her ex-husband, "We're not ugly people". The movie reminds us that being ugly is actually a choice we make, motivated by emotion. We choose to be ugly. No matter who we are. Or we don't. Perhaps the bravest thing about Carol is that it ignores the narrative convention of North American cinema that all characters must fight, that overt behaviour is better story telling. Carol makes a decision she knows is right for her daughter but one which she says comes without any sense of whether it is right for her. "I'm no martyr," she says. "I have no clue... what's best for me."

Composer Carter Burwell, with producer Elizabeth
Karlsen and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy at the Hamptons
Film Festival where Burwell's work was awarded.
The screenplay is remarkably strong, even apart from the wonder that it could be so, when it has felt the influencing hands of a decade or two of collaborative input, not the least of which has included an incredible nine numbered Executive Producers and four main producers, as well as countless (one assumes) notes sessions from previously assigned directors, not to mention Haynes, and the other creative team. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy jokes about it in interviews, but it must have been fatiguing to be so surrounded and indeed she tells us that at one point she had dropped work on the project altogether. It took a period of wooing by British producer (and the true miracle-worker of this movie) Elizabeth Karlsen to bring her back on board. Somehow she has managed to sound faithful to the period, stay respectfully true to the Patricia Highsmith novel (she knew Highsmith) and also take the liberties needed to make it cinematic. (At first, I was sad about the choice to replace Therese's solitary drive home, with Carol's friend and former lover Abby driving her instead. In the novel that journey is the main period of Therese's maturing and mourning. But having seen it a second time, I realize they were absolutely right to do it this way. Therese's journey to maturity in the movie, is through her work, her art.)

If the movie is on a pedestal, as critic Zecharek ended her review by saying, it is being held up by the just-plain-gorgeous supporting performances that surround our duo. Chief among these is Sarah Paulson as the one-time lover and best friend of Carol, whose too-plain devotion sometimes makes us worry that there is some other agenda going on for her, even with absolutely nothing in the writing to support our worry. It is a perfect supporting performance: gently calibrated with her character's own losses and also upholding the leads. But equally perfect is Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol's husband. (The clip at left captures these two strong performances brilliantly, while also giving us yet another "window" to frame a character's emotion.) In Chandler's best moment, he gets up from the floor where he has been trying to fix the plumbing and, stumbling out in anger to the adjacent room, asks Therese "how do you know my wife"? It is both aggressive and poignant -- a continuous balancing act that he accomplishes with assurance. Both Chandler and Jake Lacy's characters are decent men who just don't get it, though Lacy's character Richard, Therese's boyfriend, at least has a moment when he names the love for what it is.

Although Todd Haynes himself has gone to great lengths to talk about his desire to show the darker aspects of this time, ie, the fact that this love affair would have been deemed dangerous and 'criminal' in its era, part of his accomplishment comes in his accomplished work of contrasting that climate with the emotional tenderness of the two women. Here, he says he was deeply influenced by Ruth Orkin as a photographer, and by the movies of Orkin and Morris Engel, particularly The Little Fugitive, and the 1956 film Lovers and Lollipops which he asked his creative team (including Blanchett and Mara) to watch, before they started shooting. The few clips available on youtube are revelatory in illuminating the verité style and also framing of Carol. (In the clip here, one of my favourites, notice the use of windows and doors and changing points of view.) Although the Orkin/Engel film is more dialogue driven than Carol, the emotional intimacy of its characters is foregrounded. And the tenuous nature of new love is vivid. Carol is, however, less whimsical and more brittle than Lovers and Lollipops.

The eroticism is gentle and spare, just to let us know it is there, and
landing on the side of tenderness. Yet another bravely right decision.
It is this slightly brittle edge that has caused some to find the movie a bit cold. If your heart is beating with the women, there is no chance of being cold, even for a second. The intimacy is all emotional, although we get the nude scene kind too. But that one love scene seems almost intended to be an abbreviation, so that the audience will not focus on it too much. In fact, there are other scenes that accomplish the tenderness of intimacy more vividly. After a terrible event that might have separated them, Carol tells Therese she doesn't have to sleep in the other bed in the new hotel room. Even fully clothed, as Therese comes into Carol's arms, she disappears under her in a way we all dream of being embraced -- with such deep love, more important in this moment, than the desire that got them into trouble.

There are many moments when Judy Becker's production design acts
like a visual 'score' of the movie's deepest underlying themes.
If there is any coldness in this film, it might come from the experience of the complete absence of a buffer zone inside which we can distance ourselves. While most people have acclimatized themselves to a culture in which same-gender love is acceptable, this is a film which will call out any remaining doubt about that, not because of the actions of its characters, but because of how normally it is presented, with characters both flawed and caring. There is no desire or need to make these love-marginalized women too good, or too bad, and there is no agenda, which many (from any perspective on gay sexuality) may want unconsciously to see while watching Carol, whether they mean to or not. Although profoundly romantic, it is not sweepingly romantic in the Dr. Zhivago sense - it is not an epic, but a small quiet film, as all the artists who worked on it keep trying to tell us. Its strength is in its subtleties and chamber music intimacy. Therefore it does not remind us of our separateness, but draws us into its small circle. It invites the (willing) viewer into a hypnotic trance of something startlingly familiar but presented in an entirely new way, while surrounded by a masterfully composed aesthetic of image and sound in which every emotion we have is vibrated deeply within us. If you are willing, there is no escaping Carol. Unless you choose to abstain. Unless you find that the absence of that thing that would have given you a soft cushion from its core truths, is too hard to be without. (And if Carol does not do the traction it should in the awards season, I propose that this will be the main reason.)

The two leads, as photographed by Wally Skalij for the L.A. Times
All of the characters in this drama are equally human and capable of caring and giving but are caught in the maelstrom of their own emotional worlds. Blanchett and Mara have been trying to say this in each and every interview, even as they are time after time asked about doing love scenes together. Rooney Mara has an incredible, almost unbelievable genuineness in interviews -- she is entirely herself, and openly adores Blanchett, who in turn praises the work of the more ingenue actor whenever she can. In all of these press pieces, and in their magazine cover-ready couture, they are contrastingly (to the glamour) laid back as they talk about the film. The wonderful Indiewire interview in Cannes captures that perfectly.
"It's still an unnatural and overdetermined moment at Cannes.
It's like launching something from the top of a wedding cake,"
says Todd Haynes, in the best joint interview, done on the morning
after the Cannes debut, by Nigel Smith of Indiewire.
Cannes was the debut, but also a place that made it easy for all of the artists to bask in the tidal wave of love that washed over the breakers of the Mediterranean and onto the Croisette. Descending the red carpeted staircase, slightly out of step with each other, the blush of that first screening was everywhere on them. (Even if such hyper-focus is not a true gauge of how a film is; and even if the two leading actors were required too many times to stand like wax objects at Madame Tussaud's, living into what has become the orgyistic fetishism of celebrity. Go here for my article on that.)


Although most queer criticism of the movie has lauded and welcomed its breath of fresh air, there has also been a whiff of critique towards the movie because it is not agenda'd enough. In this way, the film reveals the agenda of the respondents, because it has no agenda itself. This kind of writing misses the point that the brilliance of the movie (which includes at least three openly gay artists in its main creative team), is that it can convey the experience of human love in general, while also detailing lesbian relationship in particular, and very specifically, lesbian relationship in the 1950s. It is a hat trick of cinematic integration.

Many of their scenes occur while they themselves are en route.
The result is a sense that we are voyaging with them, as uncertain as
they are about how it will all end.
There is one memorable scene for me when Carol and Therese are traveling in the car together, still freshly in love but also haunted by very recently devastating events. Carol says "What are you thinking?" and then before Therese can answer, adds, "You know how many times a day I ask you that?", vaguely irritated. Therese apologizes and there is a tension before she can say anything. This moment of things being fraught and going south, so soon in a relationship, with its following moment of silence, is just raw and simple. Therese starts to explain and it is true and also overstated and all those things we do in those fraught moments. It defies the narrative conventions of "they start out here, then this happens and they feel this way and then this happens and they feel that" - a system of writing in which emotion is always at the hands of narrative events. Always in response to it. We know from our own lives, that such patterning is ridiculous. It is screenplay mapping that is taught in film schools in the early years, so that writers have that skill, but which is then later ditched by good writers who understand that human emotion and relationship modulate and vibrate up and down all the time. All the time. (This understanding is directly reflected in the modulating, tremulous music of Carter Burwell's score.) It is a terrible waste, a terrible convention to map the emotional line of a screenplay directly to its narrative events. (But I am trying to write a book about this so I won't get distracted.)

Eventually, in the scene I've described, Carol pulls the car over and firmly reassures Therese with clarity and also love. Blanchett and Mara know how to stay reserved so that we get a chance to feel it, instead of watching them feel it for us. But there is a thread of the unknown also still there. The underlying preoccupations of a woman torn by love for her child and love for a lover, who knows as she drives and smokes, that her life is not going to be about choosing between them, but about how not to lose both. Then there is the woman riding in the passenger seat who has suddenly understood that her failed personal sense of passivity has in fact driven events. Her incapacity to say no when she should (a beautiful character-writing detail) has led to more moral responsibility than she has ever wanted to assume.

In an "anatomy of a scene" video for The New York Times, Haynes
explains how he alternates static shots with two moving shots at the
end of the scene in which the women first meet, allowing a sense of

emotion now in play. (Go here to see the entire video.)
Todd Haynes has explained how one choice of the film is to subtly and slowly shift the perspective of the movie from Therese's point of view, to Carol's. This happens figuratively so many ways but most strikingly in the scene that bookends the movie, in which Carol and Therese meet up for the first time after a period of separation. By the time we return to the scene at the end of the story, we understand how critically important it is. But we experience it from the place of the person with the greater losses. Then we follow our protagonist out into her Bohemian life, where the chance for a whole new relationship with a lovely brunette, hangs on the precipice of a casual flirtatious conversation in the kitchen of a party, a scene shot breathtakingly from outside the building where the women are framed in one of two windows and the new love interest moves from one window, to the other, to talk. Although I am sad that Carrie Brownstein did not have more screen time in this movie, this distance from the new possibility in Therese's life, helps us know exactly what her likely decision about it will be.

The last two shots of the film have been given away in all the trailers,
but they still manage to be electrifying when they actually occur.
The end of this particular sequence is for me a small sacred space. As she is making the decision, and getting ready to leave the party, Therese looks down at the young man who has been a formative mentor to her, while remaining a minor character in the story. He is a writer whose career advice and job at the New York Times first increases her profile as a photographer. Earlier, we see him in the projection booth of a movie theatre, taking notes on Sunset Boulevard and claiming, as he does so, that he is "charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel." By the time we see him doing this again at this moment near the end, he is sitting on the floor with his girlfriend watching a movie on television. The film he is watching is not given to us. But the dialogue we hear from it is, "what are you going to do?",  to which someone responds "I'm praying." "Praying!" "Praying." As almost the only dialogue from this scene, it brilliantly underlines the moment of decision. Therese's action takes her out into a place of liminal uncertainty, with a future entirely unknown, except that it includes the possibility of love.