Learning to Love Carol

carol-mara-blanchett

Carol
Directed by Todd Haynes
Opens November 20

The first time I saw Carol, when the credits rolled, a critic cried bravo, which I immediately took as a protective gesture for a film that had not gripped me, had somehow lacked the passion I felt the two characters—Rooney Mara’s young shop clerk Terese and Cate Blanchett’s philandering housewife of the title—must feel. Ordinarily, I would be the one rolling my eyes a little at the standard complaints about Todd Haynes films—cool, cerebral, or just somehow too studious—though I’d also wish I couldn’t feel the urbane student behind it, the armature of film history and signs and intellectual pedigree that joined the arrival of each magazine-feature-ready film. Within the structural conceit of I’m Not There, the true-bluest part for me was the headlong “I Want You” love between Ledger and Gainsbourg, falling into bed together. So it was through romantic rush that the excavations of an era in Carol made themselves known to me—simply, the yearning of Terese, the abandon sought by Carol as she pursues and professes not to know what she’s doing, and does, and doesn’t—the two arriving from different directions (self-discovery, utter unknowns for Terese; and known unknowns for Carol, yet despite greater experience and a generation’s worth of years, not necessarily more freedom or security).

A breath, a step back: this is, of course, Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, about a 1952 kind of illicit that doesn’t involve murder. At one point attached to a director who made another tale of a young woman’s experience (John Crowley, Brooklyn), and initially turned down by Mara, Carol ultimately dissolved my ambivalence by keying into those before-and-after moments—e.g., when Terese is first transfixed by Carol in a fur coat from across the room, the room being a store’s toy department, the hands and gloves one focus (hands being the focus of Terese’s own photographs, too, as shown later). Or, in a more complex before-and-after moment, the enigmatic restaurant scene that opens the movie and launches (as one almost forgets) its movie-length flashback, in which the touch of hands speaks volumes—Carol’s on Terese’s tense shoulders while leaving, Terese’s male friend while leaving in an entirely different register (and, oddly, shoulders-and-hands too on the cover of a Price of Salt paperback, recently reprinted in New York magazine).

The romance between the two women is necessarily a secret at a time when a husband might, say, send a private detective to acquire evidence of moral transgressions. Carol is separated from hers, doting over a daughter she is in danger of losing over her multiple affairs; Terese, who has some upstanding guy, is at her own turning point of not knowing, a counterpart to Carol’s inevitable breaking point. Mara’s spooked intensity nestles nicely, with barbs, into the role; Blanchett performs a grand New York lady, who sweeps in but is upstaged by Terese when it comes to tipping their hand to the help. DP Ed Lachman’s muzzy translucent windows and obstructions and patterns and grey New York somehow serve to show Terese feeling her way forward, and the uncertainty of seeing what lies ahead, as well as the hide-and-seek of investment in any romance with risks. Nagy’s lapidary screenplay is laced with double-purpose lines: “Is there any use in fighting this?” or the attempted pass by Terese’s friend at the New York Times, smooth talk about the mystery of what attracts people to each other.

Which presents one of the film’s amusing aspects, if we can step out of Terese and Carol’s mutual gaze for a moment: the two are surrounded by Haynes’s square wife-and-a-job men, easily the least reflective characters, downright confused about the unthinkable distraction from convention (intriguingly, Haynes and Nagy resist making the Times kid a haven of knowingness). Carol after all joins Bridge of Spies and Brooklyn this season as reconstructions of earlier times in all their blind spots and barriers, and the persistence of their heroes and heroines let us find a purity in their resistance of high-stakes strictures, and an attractive clarity. In their story set in the past, there lies possibility, which is what infuses Carol and Haynes’s best work generally, the transcendence of being and becoming yourself.

Around Brooklyn

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