' Cinema Romantico: Carol

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Carol

The first time we see Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), sharing a drink, it is un-accidentally from a distance. This is a love affair between two women at a time – America, 1952 – when that was explicitly verboten. This lends a sense of intrigue, absolutely, and danger, most definitely, but even more it generates a feeling of desperate longing. Because society forces Therese and Carol to be covert, their passion must be continuously held at bay, lingering in the shadows, a few seconds at a time, in a brush, a glance, in the way a few words might be formed. And if that makes it feel as if we are often watching a grand romance in which the romance is deliberately muted, stripped of its grandiloquence, well, exactly. After all, Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel on which this Todd Haynes’ film is based, created it off a real life encounter, published it under a pseudonym and more or less turned her back on it for many decades – confessing to such things back then came at a steep price.


Haynes conspicuously chose two actresses who would not fill the frame in precisely the same way. Blanchett stands tall, as if she’s used to moving through rooms like she’s the most beautiful person in them, more Katharine Hepburn-ish here than she was as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator”. Mara, on the other hand, is fragile, small, not towered over by Blanchett, exactly, but definitely reduced in the face of her “Yes, I’m Here” presence. There are moments when you wonder if this relationship will turn predatory, the older, stronger woman taking advantage of this nineteen year old; yet Mara’s ravenous eyes alone betray that she can stand side-by-side with her older crush. She grows up over the course of the film’s two hours, transforming from something of a doe in the headlights to a woman who knows damn well what she wants.

Therese doesn’t really enter the film so much as already exist within it, absent any tangible backstory, living alone, but being courted by Richard (Jake Lacy) who comes across so vapidly gee-whiz he probably couldn’t even tell you Therese’s favorite color. She also lets herself be courted by a fella (John Magaro) from the NY Times, who at least acknowledges her love of photography, but even that doesn’t seem to light a fire within her because doesn’t seem to know herself. Not, that is, until she spies Carol from across the doll counter at the department store where she works, unleashing a sexual twinge within them that should be familiar to everyone, boy or girl, man or woman, that universal heat burning all the way through to her soul. And rather than deny this palpable twinge within her because of the environment around her, she goes exploring.

The parallel story to Therese’s awakening is Carol’s semi-unraveling, her home and hearth coming as she faces an impending divorce and custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), schooled in the social mores of machismo, who threatens and menaces, seething with thinly-veiled inadequacy at the realization his wife is more drawn to Therese, and was once more drawn to Abby. Played by Sarah Paulsen, Abby, Carol’s ex-lover, is a compelling character who unfortunately just sort of hangs on the periphery, emblematically forgotten as I suppose most of society at that time would have forgotten anyone if they weren’t in a sham marriage.


Abby, in fact, is symptomatic of the film’s overall attitude toward its supporting characters, crucial to the narrative if not necessarily as crucial to our principal duo, Carol’s little girl never becoming much more than a mere plot point. Even so, the film makes palpable Carol and Therese’s hastily diminished interest in their respective regular lives, underlining the all-in nature of their relationship. And therefore it makes complete emotional sense when they flee all of a sudden in Carol’s glamorous Packard on a cross-country road trip to points who-knows-where, complicit both in their sexual hunger for the other and in jettisoning all these supporting characters who only feel like restrictions to their urges.

Those urges, so voracious, so rash, often stand in contrast to the film’s look, the detailed cinematography of Edward Lachman, so majestic that many frames come to resemble oil-on-canvas paintings, and the thought-through precision of Sandy Powell’s costume design, like Therese’s beret, youthfully guile, and seemingly designed to bottle in erotic emotion. The aesthetic exactness lends a just-so on screen atmosphere, like the non-existent 1950’s American ideal we are so often peddled, a gallery of moving Saturday Evening Post covers, and yet these two women are not exactly conforming to that rigid template; rather, they are breaking free. And even if the film appears momentarily to tip toward pat tragedy, leaving them ensnared in this era forever, it eventually erupts through the apparent doom, stoking a fire in its closing shot that finally is allowed to smolder with a romantic ebullience, carving out a happy ending to which so many movies egregiously feel entitled to but that “Carol” earns with every hard-earned step its lovers take.

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