“I never looked like that.” – Carol (Cate Blanchett) to Therese (Rooney Mara) in “Carol”
“‘But I never looked like that!’ – How do you know? What is the ‘you’ you might or might not look like? Where do you find it – by which morphological or expressive calibration? Where is your authentic body? You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image; you never see your eyes unless they are dulled by the gaze they rest upon the mirror or the lens (I am interested in seeing my eyes only when they look at you): even and especially for your own body, you are condemned to the repertoire of its images. – “Roland Barthes” by Roland Barthes
Todd Haynes’ latest film “Carol” is, on the surface, a moving love story between two women of different classes in ’50s New York. Unlike his previous ’50s period piece, “Far From Heaven,” which existed inside a film-history bubble of Douglas Sirk melodramas, this film is grounded in reality. Instead of studio films as reference, Haynes used post-war color photography as a model for capturing a “dirty and sagging” New York. The abstraction of photographer Saul Leiter was an influence, and so were women photographers like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, and Vivian Maier.
What’s fascinating, though, is that on a deeper look the film has more in common with Haynes’ past themes of identity and artifice but is presented more subtly, smuggled in the Trojan Horse of realism. Rooney Mara gives an exquisite performance of small vibrations, which is in contrast to Cate Blanchett’s Carol, an earthquake of old-fashioned glamour. The interplay between their two acting styles is key to what makes the film great. And what makes it a signature Haynes film is how Mara’s Therese models herself on Carol, in a sense becoming even more real by imitating artifice.
Haynes is so polite that he’s hesitant to give himself credit for anything. Like one of his characters, sometimes you have to read between the lines. But we had the great pleasure of talking to him about his interests and collaborators at the Zurich Film Festival and then again in New York City. This interview over two continents has been edited for length.
Were you familiar with the book before the film project?
I knew Highsmith, but I didn’t know “The Price of Salt,” to the shock of my lesbian friends.
I don’t think it’s like any of her other novels that I know of, because it’s outside of the crime milieu and it relates to her experiences as a lesbian. But what it does is it brings that same sense of the criminal to the amorous mind and the amorous experience. And what it feels like to begin to fall in love with somebody and not know how they feel in return.
So you’re watching every detail and every sign for a clue as to where you stand. And the mind is in this extremely productive state that is very much like the criminal mind, imagining every outcome and every possible scenario that could you get caught. And in that way it does an extremely good job of linking something extremely universal to something sort of transgressive.
And in filming that, did you try to do that watching the details through Therese’s point of view?
Absolutely. The book is entirely from Therese’s point of view. And the first draft of the script that I received opened up access to Carol…And I know that the process of trying to get the film financed had its impact on the writing, and I loved the first draft, but I thought that some of the strengths of novel could improve the script. And I talked to Phyllis [Nagy, screenwriter] about it and she was very excited to do so. There was a greater ease between the women initially in the script. And in the novel there was tremendous tension and uncertainty. So that sense of being locked inside one point of view was strengthened and made more disquieting.
And then I just started to watch a lot of love stories on film and found that some of the strongest ones always put you on the side of the more vulnerable subject.
Like which movies?
Well, the first film that I thought of when I read it was “Brief Encounter.” And it made a real direct impact on some changes in the structure of the story. So we repeat that same structure in “Brief Encounter” that begins and ends with the same scene. The difference is that in “Brief Encounter” you realize that this is Celia Johnson’s story. She goes home and begins to recount this experience to her husband. And you come full circle and then you realize what that conversation that was interrupted in the beginning of the film meant.
And in this case we do the same thing, but you also shift point of views by the end of “Carol,” so by the time we come back, it’s no longer Therese that’s in the vulnerable position, but Carol.
Did both this film and your next film (“Wonderstruck” from the “Hugo” graphic novelist Brian Selznick) come to you through the costume designer Sandy Powell?
I first heard about “Carol”through Sandy Powell. When she told me about it they weren’t actively looking for a director, so it wasn’t an official discussion, she was just telling me what was coming up for her. It was the first time I heard that there was this Patricia Highsmith lesbian novel, that Cate was attached to it and that [producer] Elizabeth Karlsen was doing it, so the whole thing sounded pretty enticing. Then it was probably a good six months before they came to me with it officially.
But Sandy did discuss with Brian Selznick who would be the best person to do “Wonderstruck,” so Brian sent his own first adaptation of one his books to me.
Can you tell me about your working relationship with Powell?
It’s just one of my great lucky strikes in my career. When I fist sought out Sandy, I knew her work and she’d designed “Orlando” and some Derek Jarman films, and we had some friends in common in the UK.
And when she said yes [to “Velvet Goldmine”] I felt liked I’d just cast my lead in the film and just started jumping up and down on the bed in the hotel with hysterical glee. And I was so…right. [laughs] to feel that way. It was in many ways my lead. It was the thing that brought together all these disparate characters and their desires and fantasies. And we took the language of glam rock and applied it to a film in that we reinvented our own parallel universe for the world and our own theatrical allegory for 20th century design and style, and you see that in mashups of different costume eras that combine in different scenes of the movie for specific reasons. So the ’70s is a constant presence, but the ’70s is always incorporating the ’20s or the ’40s or the ’50s, as the ’70s did, but in a very overt and exuberant way in “Velvet Goldmine.”
And in other films it’s been much more subdued and restrained and, for lack of a better word, naturalistic, approach like in “Carol.”
I think there’s so much about these two women about class, power and psychology that’s is communicated through clothes and colors.
I think that’s absolutely true, but there’s also something about permeations of class that are also built into aspects that women learn to present as women. In the book at least, you learn that Carol wasn’t born into the class that she married into with Harge, but she certainly mastered the presentation of her beauty and of her womanliness, of her style and self-presentation in a way that made her exactly what that class seeks out in terms of mother and wife and socialite.
In a way, you almost see some of that happening that in a parallel sense, maybe a slightly more reduced way, with Therese, from the beginning to the end. Where she does begin to occupy and incorporate aspects of Carol’s knowledge of how to present herself to the world and how to move and how to dress and how to behave as a “woman” in a way that parallels her own steps towards the beginning of a career.
I’m curious about that because it’s a love relationship but there’s also this sense of apprenticeship, of how to be a woman.
And there are a lot of films like that where a woman copies another woman…
And it’s not always necessarily a love relationship. But do you think that being a same sex relationship lends itself more to that theme, of apprenticing her femininity or womanhood?
Not necessarily, in fact I think that might be one of the aspects of “Carol”that differs from possibly other places a story of lesbian love might take place, even in the 1950s. Whoever those women are who Therese looks at in the record store and who make her in some sense feel a kind of aversion, and an absolute moment of wanting to distinguish herself from that kind of representation of difference. What you see is that those women and their rejection of traditional feminine garb and manners and self-presentation, that’s a different story. And that takes place in a different world than “Carol,” so you’re learning about women who are still very much codified by the society.
Did that draw you to it? I feel like that’s a common theme in your films, that theme of conformity?
I like that about this story. I think it just meant that both women were less equipped for what they were going to encounter, in meeting each other, particularly Therese meeting Carol.
Like in the novel, Therese is an aspiring stage designer, and that immediately puts her just a little closer to Bohemia and Greenwich Village life in the early 1950s, a place where you might imagine she would encounter different life choices and people rejecting different notions of femininity or the grey flannel suit for the traditional man. Just different sort of clothes, classes and identities that allowed themselves to be played out and were not filtered. And I feel like we’ve sort of seen that depicted in films, and I kind of like showing people who have less exposure to alternative ways of being or identifying.
I like how since she’s a photographer we see the film through her view of looking at Carol, and also your view of looking at Carol. I think that there’s a bit of fetishization in the camera, in her camera or more so in your camera, of Carol’s femininity.
I don’t know if I would call it fetishization of women as a kind of constant. I mean, yes, the ways in which Carol conjures this image of this woman initially to both viewer and to Therese in the beginning of the film is part of that spell that she casts. But that’s a spell that will work on many different people. It’s not a spell directed at young women, for instance, for a potentially gay subject particularly. It’s this codified beauty of a woman. But that changes, because not only do you see Therese not there yet as a woman, the way she dresses, her hair, everything about her is still finding itself. It doesn’t have that dressed up quality until the end of the movie.
And a very important scene in the film, I think, is when Carol is with Abby in her house towards the end of the film, and she’s reevaluating the value of Therese in her life. And you see Carol with most of her make-up off her face, she looks tired, she’s wearing just a sweater, her eyes are fatigued and you might see traces of mascara but she’s not “Carol.” You’re seeing a stripped down version of this woman. And when she does dress up again, and she does find Therese again, she’s changed her status, and she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve.
The vulnerable one.
The vulnerable one.
So those initial scenes: The spell. That used to be so common in films: The hair, the profile, that used to be the cinema.
So were you looking to those old films to capture this?
I was a bit but I found that the language of those films didn’t really help with the language with which we wanted to tell this story because everything is codified in those films and everything is a bit mannered. That’s why I was drawn towards documentary, photography, and even docudramas that were made at the time for different kind of vernacular. What it means is against a slightly more distressed world that Carol occupies, Carol’s glamour and beauty are even more distinguished.
Ah. And you found your way to naturalism.
I did! It took me long enough. [laughs]
Do you think you’ll keep on that track?
I don’t know. Not entirely. It’s really about finding the right language for the material. And it depends on the material.
And finding something with the artifice, with those layers.
Yeah. And naturalism is artificial. It’s all artificial.