In Carol, Todd Haynes best captures the feeling of loneliness in a crowd. Scene after scene, you’ll find Haynes place his principle actors within the center of the frame, shot from a tangible distance that keeps the audience from ever getting too close. You’ll find Therese (Rooney Mara) shuffling along with her coworkers in a department store, the crowds of moving bodies consuming her, as she remains fixed at her post. And there’s Haynes’ steady refusal to show Therese in duress, directly, instead opting to capture her inward agony through a reflection or mirror. These gestures indicate a formal detachment, a kind of specific “aloneness” that Haynes has cultivated since Safe and Far From Heaven. In Carol, he examines that stillness that comes from loneliness, that fog-like quality of melancholia that makes the experience of interpersonal exchanges laborious and daunting. That is until Therese meets the One. The face in the crowd that is not a blur; the one that commands her attention in an extra-curricular sort of way. In Therese’s case, that person is Carol (Cate Blanchett) - the person who’s just as alone as her.
Adapted, from Patricia Highsmith’s exquisite queer vade mecum The Price of Salt, by Phyllis Nagy, Carol details the fraught anxieties of queer politics in an age where remaining closeted was the norm. The emotional barrier that Haynes places the viewer is immediate: we observe Carol and Therese from a distance in a hotel restaurant, unaware of their conversation or why the scene registers as so intense, yet fragile. A key gesture, Carol resting her hand on Therese’s shoulder as she leaves, teases cosmic significance: Carol standing, her face outside from view of the frame, while Therese visibly absorbs the passing gesture as profound and immediate. We exit the hotel lobby and flashback to before the two met, tracing their journey from 1950s New York City throughout the Midwest before returning to that NYC hotel.
I’ll speak to the subtle and astute adjustments that Haynes and Nagy make of Highsmith’s source. In Highsmith’s novel, Therese yearns to be a set designer; in Carol, her interest rests in photography. The change is a significant one, particularly in how it contrasts with Haynes own visual approach. He has cited renowned American photographer Saul Leiter as a visual reference and as such it’s hard not to see the influence shape the way you look at particular passages of Carol. The most startling image in the film is actually a seamless edit, where Therese’s mirrored reflection along a train window gives way to a shot from inside an automobile. We’re observing Therese’s arrival home through the backseat of the car window, all shot at a distance. Those are two images straight out of Leitier’s catalogue, stitched together as a smooth cinematic gesture. Compounded by the candid personal images that Therese takes – most notably in her treatment of Carol as her first “subject” (Therese feigns disinterest in taking photographs of “humans”). But as her adoration for Carol swells, so does her stylistic verve, inspiring her to take more photos of her. The results are striking and even bare a resemblance to the work of Vivian Maier: humanistic, observant, and starkly beautiful.
Another key, though less successful, departure from The Price of Salt to Carol involves a shift in perspective. Highsmith’s novel strictly follows Therese’s viewpoint, whereas Haynes adaptation develops Carol’s narrative outside of Therese’s eyes. The interplay between Carol and Therese positions the latter in love-adorned awe of the former for much of the picture, though that sense of pining shifts as the film moves toward its last act. I admire the attempt, but the dynamic that Haynes and Nagy establish between their actors does not produce the sweeping cachet that its final act requires. This is primarily because Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchet are producing very different kinds of performances: Mara’s internalized passions versus Blanchet’s external bravado. I jibed with Mara’s subdued approach, and found her attempts to reconcile the reality of her situation to be especially moving, yet Blanchett’s more involved narrative does less suggesting and more telling. To see two very different narratives converge in the film’s final act came across as a bit labored, where Carol’s deconstruction as deity to human feels too forced (a deposition sequence produces an especially uninvolved dramatic moment that, frankly, does not belong in the film).
Final act problems aside, Todd Haynes beautiful craft, from the elegance of his moving camera to the Sirkian gestures, scintillates. If the grief and solitude that defines the opening of the picture relents it’s for good reason; a spirit of halcyon joy pervades much of Therese and Carol’s Midwest trek from hotel to hotel. And Rooney Mara is equal parts jubilant and devastating in her Cannes-winning role. A scene involving Therese pressed against Carol’s neck, smelling her perfume, only to see her take a swig of the nearest drink, is done so subtly and with such good humor that it almost escapes you that heartbreak looms. Yet to see these two take refuge from the crushing loneliness that has pervaded their lives, this small gesture is among many that accumulate into something truly significant.