The green lettering might be the first thing that registers. Is it actually even green? The faint pastel opening-credits titles of Todd Haynes’s Carol aren’t particularly dramatic or striking, but rather apologetic: they seem reluctant to impose themselves on the title sequence itself: a delicate crane shot of a 1950s New York street scene scored by the first falling quavers of Carter Burwell’s main theme. The letters appear in colors so muted that an audience might question whether the projector bulb could do with a cleaning. That near indefinable greenish hue, faintly glowing but desaturated—the subdued turquoise of a Caribbean shoreline after sundown; a box from Tiffany & Co. dropped in a puddle—will reappear many times throughout the film (on walls and clothing), and whatever one’s expectations of Carol going into the theater, there can be no doubt that after the glorious Sirkian Technicolor-aping fresco of Haynes’s 2002 drama Far from Heaven, cinematographer Ed Lachman’s palette is muddier here—mixed from the tumult of life, in a society on the brink of explosion.
Set just before the Eisenhower years—the sudden prosperity and primary-colored beauty of which would come to imbue Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of female imprisonment—it’s the story of a seemingly impossible love affair between two women, unfolding at a moment in time when the American Psychiatric Association considered lesbianism to be a mental illness. Carol is based, admirably closely, on Patricia Highsmith’s notorious, semiautobiographical novel The Price of Salt; the austerity and uncertainty of the period are grounded in Phyllis Nagy’s sober, refined script (eighteen years in development) and enlarged by Lachman’s immaculately restrained and meticulous artistry. The secret of the grain engendered by the choice to shoot the film on Super 16mm (as their previous collaboration for television, Mildred Pierce, had been) lies not only in its capacity for period evocation but also in its conjuring of mood: it sprinkles a layer of dust over the fading world of bourgeois trophy wife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the young shop assistant and aspiring photographer Thérèse (Rooney Mara), whose eyes first meet across a crowded department store floor. These are characters striving for love and excitement against a backdrop of boredom and restriction, and the images themselves—inspired by the mid-century everyday photography of Helen Levitt and Ruth Orkin—effortlessly and unforgettably evoke a society that is pining, and pulled corset-tight.
Eventually addressing a purchase enquiry to her admirer in the store, Carol initiates a conversation and shows Thérèse a picture of her daughter, to which Thérèse responds with the immaculately weighted line “She looks like you,” an indirect compliment, soaked in implication. The love story that follows may be borne of desperation, set as it is against a backdrop of Carol’s loveless marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) and all of society’s hurdles and impediments, but it becomes uplifting through its primary focus on the couple and their yearning for one another’s company above all other considerations. The gentility and universality of this story are such that it barely matters that the attraction between Carol and Thérèse is sexual. The screenplay may present the familiar components of a coup de foudre (love at first sight), but the need that Carol and Thérèse have for one another is supra-sexual. The film—recently voted the greatest LGBT film of all time, in a poll conducted by the BFI—is not about lesbianism but desire, and its power both to intoxicate and invigorate. Injustice stacks all the cards against Carol’s characters, yet they thrive: they are both pitiful and indomitable.
Blanchett, so often a dominant “performer” on screen, frequently called upon in roles to curl her lip or gesticulate, places herself here in utter subservience to the truth of her character: Carol’s is a superficial, turgid life, further degraded by her being badly loved. Her pragmatism and decency (choosing to break off the affair with Thérèse to protect her daughter) is almost her undoing, and Blanchett delivers this self-sacrifice without a trace of flamboyance or heroism, only a gentle, heartbreaking restraint. Mara, an acutely mysterious actress, is perfectly cast as the inscrutable protagonist (“flung out of space,” as Carol says); through her wide eyes and untrained camera lens we gaze at Carol, and we inevitably share her growing attraction to her. The photography is a rare but apposite departure from the novel, in which Thérèse is a set designer. To Albert Einstein we owe the aphorism: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Carol is initially presented here as the beautiful, mysterious object of desire, but it is Thérèse (the subject of the desire) who is the hardest to read and to some, ultimately most captivating. It’s as if Carol the portrait—the outwardly seductive display, which in the fine words of Rachel Cooke in The Guardian, “seems lit from within”—begins to betray its own effort and thus loses its initial luster in comparison to the image we in the audience are trying to create of Thérese, the portrait maker. At one moment—only one—the lens is inverted: Carol looks out of a car window at Thérèse, walking obliviously in the street wearing a new red coat; the watcher has become the watched in that instant, crystallizing the viewer’s fascination with Thérèse at the same time as underlining Carol’s. This sudden but subtle transposition is a typical Haynesian master stroke in a film replete with details so fine-spun as to warrant several repeat viewings. In Carol, nothing is extreme, yet because of the drip-drip accumulation of such precisely crafted moments we are engulfed.
The outwardly glamorous trappings hinted at in the film’s publicity materials are occasionally apparent—a pivotal sequence at the Ritz-Carlton; Carol’s fur coat and lipstick; martinis for lunch—but they are etched against the soiled, grainy texture of Lachman’s urban landscape. These images and the disarming skill of the lead performances are all of a piece with Haynes’s meticulousness. Despite Haynes’s embracing the sobriety of Nagy’s script, his predilection for iconography (see I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine) hasn’t fully deserted him: Blanchett looks like pre-Cassavetes Gena Rowlands, while Mara bears an almost insolent resemblance to Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. Haynes is unafraid to wear his own artistic inspirations on his sleeve and he encourages his collaborators to buy into them: he ingested and recommended to the cast Roland Barthes’s compendium Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse before shooting, and even produced a bespoke playlist of period music (Ella Fitzgerald, Johnnie Ray, Benny Goodman) for his actors to listen to while developing their characters. Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will recognize the use of Chopin’s Etude Op.10, No.3 in E Major, performed by Jo Stafford as “No Other Love” on the soundtrack. Both the period and the lyrics fit the bill more closely than in The Master—“now that I’ve known the comfort of your arms . . . I was blessed with love to love you/Till the stars burn out above you”—and the humility of Chopin’s simple piano study (just as Carter Burwell’s own score uses one single, crushingly simple motif) helps reduce this love story to its core elements.
This being a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, a chunk of the plot is ostensibly structured as a thriller—there is a midfilm plot lurch that shapes the lovers’ story for the worse—but above all, this framework represents a way to dramatize a journey of discovery that Highsmith and Haynes both value. For Haynes, romantic imagination is as feverish, suspenseful, and tense as criminal imagination. When the love scene finally arrives, it is doubly eroticized not by being graphic, but by being a moment of both intense liberation (finally they can be together) and surrender (a previously uncertain Thérèse abandons herself to Carol completely). Nagy implies that Carol’s predicament with Harge is as much about sex (gender) as it is about sexuality: after all it is Carol’s infidelity that condemns her to an unfavorable divorce settlement, not her lesbianism. The punishment of Harge’s “morality clause” would have been applied just as firmly had Carol been found with a man, even if it would lack that deal-breaking coat of salaciousness.
Throughout the film Haynes plays on subtle juxtapositions: glamour and austerity; beauty and sadness; the artifice of Carol’s existence and the naturalism of its depiction; the color of the period versus the color of the films of the period . . . and the duality of Lachman’s austere yet deep and rich cinematography is a perfect foil, sublimed by a viewing of Carol in 35mm. It’s notable that as an auteur Haynes carries a much greater thematic consistency in his work than a formal one. From Superstar, his short biopic of Karen Carpenter shot with Barbie dolls in 1987 and the New Queer sci-fi-horror Poison, Haynes has matured into a chronicler of female life (Safe, Far from Heaven, Mildred Pierce, Carol, and an upcoming Peggy Lee project), and while his facility with different grammatical forms, styles, and emulsions doesn’t necessarily make him superior to other filmmakers, it makes him distinctive and precious, like a David Bowie of American cinema.
According to Lachman, Haynes first confided in him during the shooting of I’m Not There that he particularly valued Lachman’s refusal to settle on a signature photographic style. As a student of fine art, Lachman studied many different methods and his determination to continue experimenting permits him an eyebrow-raising breadth of output, from Daft Punk music videos through the ethereal somnolence of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, to his stripped compositional work on Ulrich Seidl films and the minimalism of his own notorious film Ken Park. By striving to create for himself a new innocence with each project, Lachman communicates the excitement of his invention to the audience: not a frame of Carol is wasted or tired. (Witness, after an encounter with a private investigator, as Carol telephones her friend Abby for help, the reverse shot of Thérèse, standing quietly traumatized with a sunlit wall behind her: with the intensity of the drama unfolding in the foreground, the whole image seems to shimmer).
Fitting, then that Lachman’s “camera eye” will eventually take over the proceedings, as Haynes produces a quietly awe-inspiring bravura sequence to close the film. Our identification with Thérèse as the camera’s point of view finally becomes literal. As she walks through a crowded dining room, the camera behaves as if it has lost itself. It strains to catch a glimpse of Carol, seated at the end of the room with random dining companions. The green gloam of the outside world has dissolved away and the picture feels much sharper, as if some clarity had finally descended on the world of Carol and Thérèse, for whom a future surely always beckoned. Other diners, frustratingly, fill the frame and interrupt the shot, so we are kept waiting as the camera flicks one way and another. You can almost feel its heart beating with anticipation.
Julien Allen is a film writer based in London.
Carol plays at the Metrograph in 35mm on March 26, 2016.