Todd Haynes returns to the 1950s. I wish he hadn't.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith)
With Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), and Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard)
Spoiler alert: moderate
First off: Douglas Sirk doesn't have the first Goddamned thing to do with Carol, and at least some of my antipathy toward it has to do with a set of badly miscalibrated expectations, which its writer, Phyllis Nagy, and its director, Todd Haynes, never intended to meet. However, since it turns out they should have, I don't feel quite as ashamed as I ought to when I share my poisonous bias; whereas feints in this direction in the film itself suggest that I'm not being totally unfair. But there are, of course, reasons why we might have assumed that there was a Sirkian influence to Carol. (And one reason would be a review in a highly conspicuous publication, written by someone who really ought to know better, that makes just such a claim.)
Another reason is that Todd Haynes is the world's biggest Douglas Sirk fan. Indeed, his most-seen film, 2002's Far From Heaven, was an avowed attempt to revive and modernize Sirk, by remixing several elements from Sirk's most aesthetically successful movie, 1955's gorgeous All That Heaven Allows, with his most financially successful, his 1959 remake of the race-in-America drama Imitation of Life, and then throwing in a gay Dennis Quaid for good measure. The actual result was a movie that looked more like Dick Tracy than Sirk, and it never achieved the great director's own soap operatic high emotion. Yet it was quite noble and enjoyable on its merits.
The third reason, I'm afraid, is a rather stupid one, and it boils down to the fact that Carol also happens to be a romance that takes place in the 1950s. Still, I trust that you can see how I might have gotten my hopes up.
And to this limited extent, Carol does in fact represent Haynes going back to the well, and finding it dry. I would expect that he's gotten used to this, however: his last theatrical feature, I'm Not There, evidenced the very same problem. With I'm Not There, Haynes decided to make another goofy, unconventional musical biopic, following up on the film that essentially made his career, the entertaining Velvet Goldmine. Since I'm Not There is abjectly terrible, we can at least be happy that Carol cannot also be described with the phrase "going back to the well, and finding it full of sewage." (It is as Cate Blanchett in the guise of Bob Dylan once told a statue of Jesus Christ: "Play the old stuff!"; just be careful what you wish for.)
No, Carol's okay, and that's okay. But, rather unpalatably, the mode of production which Carol most acutely recalls is that of the stately Oscarbait social issues drama—more specifically, the stately Oscarbait social issues drama set in the past and concerned with a social issue that has lost its controversy, and which therefore has been used as the subject of a film in order to give its middlebrow audience the thrill of feeling morally superior to the benighted idiots of the past. Anyway, this is a niche that it's relatively easy to be okay in, but a niche it's very, very hard to be great in. And even if I found myself compelled to reach for the most obvious, most heterosexist comparison I could possibly make to describe my reaction to Carol—Brokeback Mountain—Ang Lee's own icy, often inert movie nonetheless does all the same things this one does, only moreso.
So, let's go back to the old days, when the movies were better and just about everything else was worse. Carol is the story of a romance between two women: the older, married, elegant Carol Aird, and the young shopgirl, Therese Belivet. They lock eyes at the department store where Therese works, and flirt—extremely cautiously—over the purchase of an elaborate train set for Carol's daughter. Carol leaves her gloves, quite accidentally-on-purpose. Carol hooks her fish when Therese returns them; now, Carol has an excuse to invite her to lunch, then to her home, and then to a knock-down, drag-out fight with Carol's soon-to-be-ex-husband. This puts things on ice for a moment, but it's not long before they've reunited and gone on an impromptu holiday road trip together, whereupon they make love in a startling Warmest Color sort of way, something of a surprise coming from a director with (presumably) near-zero interest in the subject being depicted. (But if there's one phrase I associate with "Sirkian melodrama," it's got to be "softcore pornography.")
Naturally, things are complicated severely by Carol's ongoing divorce, and you can, in broad strokes, predict the shape of the film's third act; although you may not predict its final moments. What I've neglected to mention is that Carol begins with the two women meeting for dinner, and nearly the entire film is a flashback—and this is one impressively broken flashback. The memories are unmistakably signaled to be Therese's, and then about half the film itself winds up being from Carol's perspective, including scenes that Therese not only could not have witnessed, but could not have even known about secondhand. But forget how suspect Carol's crappy structure is: it's also used to outright lie to you. Probably the last thing I ever expected Carol to remind me of was Mission: Impossible III; and I think I'd have really preferred it not to have.
The important thing to emphasize is that almost everything that's wrong about Carol is wrong at the level of narrative. I question the score, which seems like it would be more at home in a cerebral sci-fi film than in a romance—actually, I more than "question" the score, which underwhelms even when it swells, and is not, as it should and could have been, the driver of the film's emotional content—but otherwise, Carol is a largely pristine thing. It's strikingly photographed, to be sure: shooting on 16mm, Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman reproduce a "1950s look" much better than they did in Far From Heaven, although this achievement has a little bit of perversity to it, too, since now we get a far less sumptuously vivid palette. But let us not dwell on that, for Carol is also superbly production- and costume-designed. If it's not full of distinctive and gorgeous imagery, certainly several scenes will stick with me for a long time, especially Rooney Mara's face seen through a car window as Therese remembers her tumultuous affair.
But let's be clear: Carol has some bad visual choices, too—some distractingly obscure blocking, which never seems to enhance the story when it comes up, and a bizarre insert shot where Mara loses her lunch in a field, as a piece of cheating shorthand for "she is very sad." Overall, however, there's precious little to complain about regarding Haynes' lingering shot design, or the languid editing, except that they bloat the runtime. As far as this story goes, I can't imagine a much better way to tell it, without changing it, although I would change about half of it.
Meanwhile, the actors bring something like their A-game. Blanchett, as Carol, is obviously in fine form, and she signifies essentially perfect casting. (I cannot name anyone living or dead that I think would be better as the imperious yet brittle, furious yet forgiving Carol Aird.) Mara, I've always said, is probably the single best actor of her whole generation; but she does not, in any sense, represent perfect casting. Every time I've seen her, from her career-sparking supporting role in The Social Network to her star turns in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Side Effects, Mara has always known exactly who she is from the first frame on. She's confident, and generally she's outright mean, whether she's justified or not; her acting process generally involves just how much warmth she ought to ribbon into any individual scene, typically on the order of single-digit percentage points. She's fantastic as a Lisbeth Salander; as Therese, however, I can't say that it's very inherently gripping to watch one woman zero in on another woman and then successfully pursue her, which is essentially all that Carol provides in its first act, without much more than the very slightest hint of a sexual awakening or internal conflict or even a sense of anything but crushing inevitability. The latter impression is sealed by a scene where she tries to explain to her not-boyfriend that she's gay, she knows it, and he needs to take the hint. The sense of discovery that any good romance depends upon—which, indeed, may to a large extent be coextensive with the feeling we call "falling in love"—is missing.
This leaves it up to the script to make the relationship interesting and compelling on any level beyond "sixty years ago this was taboo," which it fails to do; while Blanchett and Mara have admirable chemistry, nothing ever (not once) suggests that their feelings go much beyond their desperate desire to fuck one another. And this, by itself, still might have been enough for a halfway-decent melodrama—except that the endless middle act puts them together and forces them to talk, revealing just how bitterly dull they are together. (Obviously, the heroes and heroines of most melodramas would be boring as shit if we actually stayed to watch their relationships grow—which is precisely why the plot of every good melodrama contrives to keep them away from each other until the end.) Things do finally pick up in the final quarter of Carol, as previously noted; even then, it lacks the quality of great melodrama, in that the repression is totally external, rather than anything internal to either one of them. Thus all we have is a general sense of unfairness, rather than a burning contradiction that might have vitalized the scenario along with its two lead performances. (Indeed, there's a vastly better version of Carol that reverses the woman who makes the penultimate decision about their relationship.)
Carol, I've mentioned, is overlong; and this is what hurts it more than anything. It's shockingly easy to see how it got this way, though, and it's not just the flabby courtship: the film is also overpopulated with a bunch of ancillary characters of nearly no account at all. Now, Carol's husband, Harge, is the necessary villain, and we can't lose him. Plus, the very best scene in the film—one of the few that feels written with any poetry—involves Carol's passionate harangue of the man over the kind of person his hurt feelings have let him become. However, Carol's former lover Abby is nothing but a jagged intrusion, their continued friendship almost completely unexplored. And, as for the two men in Therese's life—if that phrase even remotely fits—they are a pair of the most unnecessary characters I've ever seen. Besides being redundant with each other, neither one has any role, and one is actually annoying: nothing but a loudmouth caricature, his sole contribution is to replace the hateful homophobia you might expect with a lot of toxic condescension instead. (Finally, please explain to me how Carrie Brownstein's two lines and five shots get her a place in the opening credits.) Altogether, maybe half an hour is spent on what amounts to issues of tangential concern to Carol's narrative, which is fatal to a movie that's not that much more than a tangential concern in the first place.
Carol has an audience: it's for people who don't mind extremely subdued romances (though even Wong Kar-Wai fans will, I'd hope, notice the deficit of yearning); for people who like movies that have inventive photography; and for people who'd like to see Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara naked together. Apparently that's enough of a critical mass to probably see this thing through to a Best Picture nomination. For me, though, it's just one more stab of disappointment to help close out one lousy year at the movies.