Today marks the first of our ten reviews that don’t focus on a movie that was nominated for Best Picture. ‘Carol’ was chosen because it’s the movie with most nominations to this year’s Oscar that also didn’t receive a Best Picture nod. There’s one more movie with that title and we’ll eventually get to that one. In the meantime, I must also announce that this is also the first time in this edition of 10 Days of Oscar that I let someone else do the writing. I’ve felt that I can’t really do this film’s justice, as the conditions of seeing it weren’t optimal, to say the least. So, today, I leave you with my good friend from Twitter, Forrest Cardamenis, who permitted me to reprint his Letterboxd thoughts for this humble blog. I also think it’s a good film and rate it 8/10, just in case you’re curious, but I also think that I might’ve underrated it.
by Forrest Cardamenis.
To begin, a quick note on performance:
In Carol, every gesture and line delivery by the eponymous character (Cate Blanchett) exudes elegance and class, extending beyond the way she smokes a cigarette to when she smokes it – that is, after what line of dialogue, in response to what discovery, etc. When she and Therese (Rooney Mara) share her first meal, the camera embodies Therese’s gaze by focusing on details of Carol’s appearance, from lips and fingernails to hair and dress. Every time Carol speaks or takes a bite or a sip of her drink, it seems like a natural pause in the conversation and avoids the awkwardness of waiting to chew and swallow to answer or otherwise covering one’s mouth with a hand while speaking, exuding an unimpeachable confidence that, nonetheless, is a clever disguise. The scene that book-ends the film suggests in a lingering hand on the shoulder, a la ‘Brief Encounter’ (1945, Lean) (of which more later), an attitude as frightened as it is assuring. Indeed, for all the confidence, the antithetical moments, including a nervous, uncertain smile finally poking through her teeth at the film’s end and an almost frightened “I love you” declaration, are no less perfect.
Therese can’t keep up. When they are eating, she swallows obviously and suddenly to respond or nervously sips her drink to compose herself before answering. Nothing she says or does carries the supreme grace of her muse. In spite of Mara’s own brilliance in this and other scenes, shortcomings poke through a little too often. Her character’s nervousness and uncertainty occasionally seems to go beyond performance into an actress uncertain of how to play a ’50s woman, particularly during some line deliveries. I would need to watch it again to decide if I think this is the case, but even if so, these are nagging imperfections rather than tics that hurt the performance on the whole.
Just as the central performers have precise understandings of their characters, so does Haynes’ have that level of control and understanding of his material. It has never been this clear as to what he is doing and how obviously he seems to be getting everything he wants to into the film. From the wallpapers of the various interiors to the shifts in color palette and Carter Burwell’s score, every detail of the film acts as an expressionistic projection of Therese’s character, a necessary supplement to her inability to articulate her feelings. More than ‘Safe'(1995, Haynes) and ‘Far From Heaven’ (2002, Haynes) and compatriot melodramatist James Gray, ‘Carol’ is a supremely lived-in world. Haynes’ control of color, costumes and framing are examples of a director using every visual tool available to convey meaning, but it never makes the world feel like it was constructed in service of a point, even though it obviously is – in a brief scene at a movie theater, a character says he is “plotting the correlation between what the characters say and what they feel,” an obvious interpretive tip for viewers.
Despite the precision, however, the film loses something as Carol and Therese take to the road, but not any more than can be expected. The films that aspire nonstop wonder are beyond rare, and ‘Carol’ is hardly alone in teasing it before falling back to mere greatness. But in the final act, the glimpses of Therese and Carol apart lack potency, and although Haynes is almost certainly content to merely show their mutual aimlessness and longing for one another, this sliver of the film is a bit unsatisfying on its own, the rare moment in which the film feels pre-ordained or plotted.
When we re-enter the scene in which we began, with the lingering hand on the shoulder, ‘Brief Encounter’ moves from an homage – chosen, no doubt, because its depiction of inexpressible and hidden passion – remarked upon, heeded, and even known to exist only to its participants – was embraced by a gay community that drew the parallels – to a revision not unlike the one in ‘Far From Heaven’ but without that film’s intricacy.
Like that film, ‘Carol’ parallels Civil Rights and Gay Rights, albeit more discreetly this time around. When Carol returns home and talks about her psychotherapist, the TV is tuned in to a Civil Rights speech* and we see an African-American maid, anomalous in the film’s otherwise white world. It is interesting, then, that the kind of bigotry in ‘Carol’ is generally cloaked: Even Richard, Therese’s boyfriend, remarks of “people like that” with detectable derision but without hate speech; Similarly, Carol’s husband Harge remarks on Carol’s lesbian tendencies only because he wants her to stay with him. ‘Far From Heaven’ had a deeply note about all the knowledge its characters have of homosexuality in “this age,” and that kind of mockery has no such echo in ‘Carol’.
But ‘Carol’ ends, rather unexpectedly, with a reconciliation between Therese and Carol. In addition to wifedom, Carol rejects to some degree the “feminine virtue” of motherhood. Unlike in ‘Brief Encounter’ or ‘Far From Heaven’, society does not force them apart. ‘Carol’ is thus a revision of the former more suited to our age. ‘Far From Heaven’’s conceit – a pastiche of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas – would never have allowed that.
In spite of masterful manner in which Haynes makes his revision, it leaves one wondering if this revision, simple in spite of its execution, is all there is to ‘Carol’. Haynes best films – and they remain ‘Safe’ and ‘Far From Heaven’ – extract a great deal of thematic potency from more ambiguous attitudes toward characters: ‘Safe’’s protagonist is allergic to domesticity, but the film gradually distances itself from her recovery methods, while ‘Far From Heaven’ focuses on the wife of a gay man and her relationship with an African-American even though, in true Sirk style, it’s a film equally about the supporting player, the tortured husband, whose explosive attitude sometimes works against garnering audience sympathy. In these films, good people make bad decisions. In ‘Carol’, by contrast, neither Therese nor Carol makes a bad decision. If the film’s visual schema is so impeccably realized, its characters aren’t. It’s all too easy to plot that correlation between actions and feelings, and the film is robbed of richness for it.
A lack of ‘Far From Heaven’’s academicism does not make ‘Carol’ any less moving, but it doesn’t make it any more moving, either. Haynes’ early films, ‘Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story’ (1988, Haynes) and ‘Poison’ (1991, Haynes) are much colder than anything made later (even the somewhat chilly ‘Safe’), opting for a more thesis-driven and academic stance. Haynes continues to play with that mode of filmmaking, and even Carol is moving in a somewhat muted sense, as if – at least until the ending – it does not want the viewer to get too close to the forbidden love it betrays, but ‘Mildred Pierce’ (2011, Haynes) and ‘Carol’ suggest that he might be ready to move away from it. Haynes has long been at his best when he mixes the two approaches, however, and ‘Carol’ leans too heavily to one side; it does so better than almost anything else out there, but within Haynes’ own oeuvre, it disappoints even as it impresses.