Monday, November 23, 2015

Carol (****)

Directed by Todd Haynes


Todd Haynes' ballads of female domesticity are such a treasure to American independent film. His ability to tap into this world with such passion and ferocity, but also with tenderness, has produced what I would call his best cinematic work. I'm not sure it gets much better than Carol, his latest film and his most downright sincere. Like his 2002 masterpiece, Far From Heaven, Haynes takes a pointed view at the 1950's - in Heaven it was the housewife who had to learn to deal with her husband's subdued homosexuality, but in Carol it's the housewife who's sexuality is at the center. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith called 'The Price of Salt' (Highsmith originally published the novel under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Haynes is given another opportunity to peck away at the facade of the Greatest Generation, to deconstruct a time that took great strides to suppress the very outsiders that Haynes loves to champion. At its heart, though, Carol is a forbidden love story, a document of a passionate affair fighting against the limited tolerance of a society who hadn't even fathomed racial understanding let alone homosexual sensitivity. As Haynes' first feature film since the fun but troubled I'm Not There in 2007, Carol feels like a stunning return to form, a prime example of the filmmaker's talent for blending homage to classic, movie star-driven Hollywood with the intimacy of independent cinema - a brilliant exploration of the artifice of luxury and a testament to the life-shattering effects of love.

The universe of Carol is centered around two women. One, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a shop clerk in a department store, working in the toy department. The other is the titular Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a regal beauty in a fur coat who's womanhood is defined more by her life as a mother than it is as a wife. As it stands, Carol is very soon to be divorced from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, in a heartbreaking, brutish performance), who doesn't even try to understand why Carol won't accept the comfortable life that he has given to her. When Carol approaches Therese at the store to inquire about a Christmas present for her daughter, Therese convinces her to buy the new model train set. Their banter is short, pointed and Carol is subtly forward in her obvious interest. When Carol leaves her pair of gloves at the counter, Therese takes care to send them back to her home address, and Carol decides to repay the favor by taking Therese to lunch. Aside from her job at the store, Therese is an aspiring photographer who lives on her own in Manhattan with at least one suitor, Richard (Jake Lacy), who's willing to marry her. Therese is ambivalent toward Richard's pushy romanticism, unsure why she cannot find the will to commit to a handsome young man so ready to take her hand. With the arrival of Carol, Therese begins to understand her own heart, and for the first time sees how it feels to be swept up by your own emotion, to be sucked into the allure of another human being. As Carol and Therese have lunch, Carol invites the much younger woman to come over to her home to share tea and hang a Christmas tree. Without much thought, Therese agrees.

The love affair between Carol and Therese builds slowly. Haynes never seems too interested in the carnality of their relationship, focusing mostly on the emotional over the physical. When Harge ruins Carol's Christmas plans by taking their daughter, Rindy (played by two child actors, Sadie and KK Heim), a day earlier than originally planned, Carol decides to take a trip West to let off some steam. She invites Therese to join her right after giving her a Christmas present in the form of a state-of-the-art camera with several rolls of film. Their trip starts innocently - they don't even stay in the same room on the first night - but the two grow closer and closer with each passing day, as they get further and further away from New York City. Their trip seems aimless, without any real destination, and only further infuriates both Harge and Richard, who both buckle under the weight of considering the women they love being in love with another woman instead of them. In his efforts to find his wife, Harge approaches Carol's best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), another woman whom Carol has had an affair with. In a scheme to weasel Carol back into his arms, Harge decides to cite a morality clause during their divorce proceedings, using her history of lesbian activity as a reason to keep Rindy away from her. The action rattles Carol, as well as Therese, who begins to feel responsibility for her new lover's situation. As Therese is just beginning to discover her first encounter with true love, Carol must decide between the passion of her life with Therese versus keeping her daughter with her.

Just last month, I was singing Blanchett's praises for her extraordinary work in Truth, in which I mentioned how closely she is approaching peerlessness. Truth better afforded Blanchett to tap into the larger-than-life, frazzle-haired behemoth that won her two Oscars. In Carol, there's less tectonic posturing and more immersion, it's a performance worthy of the actress, while also being the most understated she's been in quite a while. Let's not forget that when the film was receiving standing ovations at Cannes this past spring, it was Rooney Mara who walked away with the Best Actress prize. Blanchett is currently the best actor on the planet, and Carol reaffirms that, but Mara gives us something here that at least I had never seen from her before. I've always seen her as talented and alluring in a strange way, but have always found her to be primarily a technical performer. This is the first time that I've ever been truly convinced by Mara on a visceral level. Even her work in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was not this raw, this vulnerable. Standing alongside the statuesque Blanchett, Mara comes off as an equal, a bonafide beauty capable of translating her complex array of feelings. Carol is the title character, but it's Therese who comes of age in this story, and that puts a lot of narrative heft atop Mara's shoulders without the benefit of a expositional dialogue (Therese tends to be the person talking the least in any given scene). There isn't a better two-headed performance in 2015, one where the fusion of two great performances lead a film so fully and gracefully.

I've always admired Todd Haynes more as a concept than as a filmmaker. The ideas behind his movies are often better than the execution, in my experience. But with [Safe], Far From Heaven and now Carol, I can see the true vision of his artistry. His obsession with societal artifice, most particularly with women, gives him a lot of both cinematic and narrative opportunities that he's spent his career taking advantage of. On the few occasions when Haynes has tried to tackle male characters - the glam rock stars of Velvet Goldmine, Bob Dylan in I'm Not There - he's viewed them as ego-driven zeppelins, bursting at the seams of their own self-importance. With his women, it's usually the opposite. Julianne Moore in [Safe] and Heaven had to fight very hard to attain even a semblance agency in her domestic prison. In Carol, Carol is skirting the line as to what is acceptable while trying to keep a stable marriage, while Therese is hoping to avoid the institution altogether. Basically, Haynes has never had high hopes for the patriarchy, and that sentiment shows often in his films. And yet, Carol seems less hung up gender politics than it is with love, which is why it may be my most favorite Haynes film to date. It does not allow the dynamics of being homosexual in 50's to dictate its story, instead allowing it to lend a context to what is a powerful, captivating story of passion. This is the most convincing love story that I've seen this year, and certainly the most convincing that Haynes has ever produced.

Producer Christine Vachon and her Killer Films production company are two of the most important figures to arise out of the 90's independent film movement. She's been behind the scenes of some of the most challenging, brilliant films of the last twenty years (Happiness, Boy's Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch to name a few), but the most important connection she's had is with the films of Haynes. She has produced every single one of Haynes' films, including his five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce for HBO. As far as I'm concerned, Haynes and Vachon are as important to American Independent films as Merchant and Ivory are to prestige costume dramas. Carol feels like their seminal achievement, a film that moves beyond the provocative nature of what Haynes and Killer Films were once known for. It's a sturdy adult story, without frills and with a narrative that may appear sparse, but only because the emotions of the characters are so bare. With Blanchett and Mara here, Haynes finally gets an otherworldly performance out of someone not named Julianne Moore, and guides a duo of performances that are better than anything I've seen since Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. Like Room and Spotlight from earlier this year, Carol further extends an awards season run with films that actually warrant the hype, but Carol has the benefit of being prestige, possessing incredible acting and telling a gay story without attempting to stigmatize it as a gay film. This is one of the best films of the year.

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