Made of crystal and suppressed tears, shot eternally through windows and mirrors and half-closed doors, Todd Haynes‘ “Carol” is a love story that starts at a trickle, swells gradually to a torrent, and finally bursts the banks of your heart. A beautiful film in every way, immaculately made, and featuring two pristine actresses glowing across rooms and tousled bedclothes at each other like beacons of tentative, unspoken hope, the film is based on a novel by “The Talented Mr Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train“‘s Patricia Highsmith. But “Carol” is not those stories, nor their filmic adaptations. It is not dark and it is not cutting. Instead it is an aching, pining film that layers the simplicity of this love affair with such strata of feeling that the story eventually becomes the essence of every affair ever, gay or straight, in which true, luminous love has been denied by circumstance.
In one of the burning, unbroken glances that Haynes favors throughout, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Bellivet (Rooney Mara) find their eyes meeting across the department store floor where Therese works. Carol, swooping in with an almost predatory air of sexual allure, and the kind of sophistication that would be irresistible to a callow, curious younger woman, leaves her gloves. Therese returns them, and thus a social obligation is established by which they can meet. Therese resists the idea that she is in love with Carol for a time (but seriously, Blanchett, in this form, with those Sandy Powell clothes, her hair and makeup, how could you not be?), while Carol, en route to a divorce from her bewildered, resentful husband Harge who still wants her back, lavishes gifts and lunches on the dazzled shopgirl. But when they finally steal away on a trip together, it transpires that the “against the grain” nature of Carol’s love life could become a bargaining chip in the divorce, which might grant Harge sole custody of her beloved daughter Rindy.
So far, so wildly melodrama-weepie, yet somehow, Haynes’ restraint makes the story feel less hormonal and hysterical, and more timeless and universal. In this he’s abetted by Edward Lachman‘s fantastic compositions, so often putting the people in separate frames within the frame, or shooting those remarkable faces (the film is a symphony of cheekbones) behind windows or other reflective/transparent surfaces. Special note must also go to Carter Burwell‘s wonderful score, to Randall Poster‘s choice soundtrack cuts, and to the moment at which the score and a radio song conflate during one dreamy sequence speeding through a tunnel and the result is peculiar and sublime.
This is, of course, not Haynes’ first foray in the mid-century-set period drama. His last project, the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” also fits that bill. But the parallels are actually closer with Haynes’ great homage to Sirkian melodrama, “Far From Heaven,” easily a complementary film to “Carol” in its portrayal of a woman stifled by 1950s mores, trapped in a marriage made a lie by homosexuality, who seeks out a potentially ruinous affair with a lover society cannot sanction. But as much as we adore “Far From Heaven,” there is an archness to it that “Carol” feels like it has moved beyond. As though, having experimented with that format, Haynes has taken similar material, and with help from Phyllis Nagy‘s excellent, understated script, drained it of even a hint of lurid excess or heightened pitch. And so, “Carol” is transgressive because it is not formally transgressive at all. Instead, it is the most sumptuous, classical star cross’d lovers romance — a “Juliet and Juliet” story — in which the central love affair is presented just as legitimately as those that dotted the Hollywood films of the Golden Era (films whose narratives French film theorist Raymond Bellour memorably likened to machines designed to produce heterosexual couples).
But if Haynes is referring less directly to Sirk and Wyler here, his love of films of that era slips through in other ways, both overt (“Sunset Boulevard” plays within the film at one point) and inferred, like how Blanchett gets a truly Greta Garbo moment with a phone receiver, or how an insensitively timed interruption by an old friend is played exactly like a similar moment from “Brief Encounter.” Haynes has co-opted the language of heterosexual Hollywood wholesale, set it in service of a nominally gay story, and the result is swooningly romantic, whatever your sexual orientation.
There is a lot more going on in “Carol” than the love story, or rather the love story is not only about its two exothermic participants. Kyle Chandler, as Carol’s husband Harge, is remarkably solid in an unforgiving role, and Sarah Paulson as Abby, the childhood friend and Carol’s ex-lover, again makes us wonder just why it is that we only ever see her in supporting turns. But you cannot take this film away from its two leads, who beneath the sparse dialogue, seem to be ever communicating in a language of looks and gestures and sideways glances, a secret lovers’ morse code blinking out between them like the light at the end of Daisy’s pier. Mara is the revelation, investing Therese with a very gentle witchiness that makes Carol’s description of her as “flung out of space” all the more appropriate: she is a little bit of an alien. Blanchett is stunning, going from a magnificent creature of secret smiles and sly winks, to a less lustered, ground-down version in a subtle but heartrending evocation of a woman trying to suppress her most vital instincts. Like a person with whom you’ve fallen for instantly and hopelessly, “Carol” shimmers and bewitches until it feels that, like Therese at a crucial climactic moment, you could be walking toward it, entranced and lovelorn, forever. [A]