The last time a movie about two women in love took the critics by storm it was Blue is the Warmest Color, a film that was so good it didn’t even need its graphic sex scenes to generate interest. In fact, those scenes risked cheapening a great film – not because sexuality is cheap, or that it should be hidden from view, or that its inclusion verged on sensationalism – but because the depiction lacked authenticity. To many other of us it seemed the director shot those scenes as a reflection his male point of view, and that intrusion ultimately diminished the two breathtaking performances of its two leads — a opinion shared by an overwhelming number of lesbian moviegoers. Todd Haynes would never let the love story of Carol and Therese be upstaged by graphic sex. Instead he has toyed with the expectations of audiences by doing the opposite: daring to tell a gay love story that finds more sensitive ways to express the breathtaking complexities of sexuality than to reduce it to the breathless act of sex itself. Imagine that.
Carol leads with beauty. So beautiful is every second of this film that it can make you cry as the sun hitting a river, or cascading jasmine on the first day of spring, or a view from above a city in France that looks down on the indescribable can do. Carol is that kind of beauty. Rooney Mara’s face is much of it. Angular and contemplative, Haynes and his brilliant cinematographer Edward Lachman capture the gentle curves of that face, the subtle expressions that flutter in a glance. Though Cate Blanchett is the kind of actress who clears the room, the magic of capturing Mara’s Therese exemplifies how the movie reaches for and achieves the indescribable.
Carol’s beauty doesn’t stop with the faces of these radiant women, or Sandy Powell’s splendid costumes, or the exquisite details of the cars, the hair, their nails, the architecture, and even the puffs of smoke each character exhales, precisely as one would have done back then. Just when you think you can’t possibly take any more beauty, Carter Burwell’s score transports you again to another layer of emotion. What is it about the worlds Todd Haynes paints? It is the careful observations of a perceptive artist and humanist.
Here is the rare film that addresses oppressive 1950s society by turning to boldly confront it rather than buckle beneath it. It is the rare script that reveals each character’s true feelings in code. The rare performances that hit every note exactly right, all in service of the story — in the largeness of hearts that pulse with warmth whenever our fellow humans presumed to be “deviant” can come proudly out of the shadows and proclaim their right to live as they are. The specifics this internal conflict involved — how difficult it was to obey the stark commands of a traditional lifestyle that required women to stay home, cook, be mothers and love their husbands in a flypaper world that entrapped millions of happy housewives of the 1950s.
Carol is never preachy. It never tries to hammer a message. It simply deftly lets us observe the agonizing complexities of a love that can’t be spoken out loud. It is a coming out and coming of age for young Therese who discovers that keeping quiet and saying “yes” to everything can never be the way to live a worthwhile life. How distinct each of them are in this film – Carol and Therese. One represents a way to exist that the other wants to be. When Therese watches Carol order exactly what she wants for lunch, Therese does the same, gracefully adopting Carol’s casual independence. Carol knows what she wants. Now she must wait for Therese to come to terms with what she wants, too. They both want the same thing but they’re asking for it in very different ways.
Carol could so easily have ended in tragedy. It could have punished its women in love. That’s the way most mid-century pulp novels would have handled transgression, but Patricia Highsmith would have none of that. Instead, how Highsmith chose to go is the same way Haynes paid tribute to her genius 6 decades later. He does what he’s so good at doing – he tells a distinct story of fascinating individuals, and let’s them speak for themselves and for no one else. He underscore his themes with color and light, with the eye of someone who looks at the world and everyone in it, more carefully than most others are capable. He considers moments as insignificant as the way a woman might write down something she wants to remember, or how annoyed a shopgirl might be if another asks to use the telephone, and then he explores incidents as momentous as how a child might ache to be with her mother at Christmas, and what it must feel like to be that mother and not have that chance – to be faced with the impossible choice of losing her child or surrendering to her own suffocation.
The sexuality of women has long been a disposable commodity. It is used as shortcut to feeling, as a way to get males to pay attention and quickly. Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are two of the sexiest women around — brains and beauty and something else built into their DNA. Haynes gives them, their characters, and the story the respect of making the sex an extension of their love. To get close, to fall in, to lose yourself — that is high romance. It’s the stuff of intimacy that great sex is built on.
Somehow, Todd Haynes has never yet been noticed or duly celebrated by the establishment majority in the industry who rely upon and identify with those lost central male figures where they can see better versions of themselves reflected. That route has always worked like a charm for them and it’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s just the reality. Someone like Haynes is less interested in that typical central male figure and more interested in fragmented people on the edge — and the ways they pull their lives together under extraordinary circumstances. But you can’t even really describe his work in such abridged terms, because he’s an artist — a painter, and one of the best directors this country has ever produced.
Carol is without question one of the best — one of the most beautiful — one of the most moving — and one of the most important films of the year.