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Private Lives: "Carol" and the Cinema of Todd Haynes

A complex study of erotic surrender in Todd Haynes’s “Carol”, in theaters now.
Duncan Gray
For the longest time, it seemed like the last thing you should expect from Todd Haynes was a simple story. Coming out of the fertile 1990s Sundance scene, he was a provocateur and delirious mash-up artist: his films were fractured narratives, or anti-narratives, or meta-narratives. His best work either mixed together wildly different styles and stories (as in his debut Poison [1991]), or presented unsettling, contradictory ideas but refused climax or closure (as in his masterpiece Safe [1995]). Even in a zeitgeist defined by Quentin Tarantino, the jukebox musicals Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I'm Not There (2007) looked like pastiche and homage taken to the farthest limit. But far more than Tarantino, Haynes, the former Ivy League semiotics student, insists on not simply getting swept away in the styles, but maintaining a critical viewpoint of how and why the styles function.
In retrospect, everything about his method was already in place in his student short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a miniature biopic of the 70s pop singer that infamously starred Barbie Dolls. The stilted early scenes of Karen Carpenter's life, if delivered straight by flesh-and-blood actors, would be an average TV movie; acted out by Barbies, they're a brilliantly demented joke; contextualized with a fake PSA on anorexia, then spiked with avant-garde montage, they become more uniquely moving than anything a devout social realist could pull off. All of Haynes's recurring obsessions are there: repressed desire, women in gilded cages, and the seductive dream of pop culture. Superstar is the story of an anguished Barbie banging against the walls of her dream house, and it wouldn't be unfair to say that Haynes has kept this as his subject ever since.
Not unfair, but also not the whole picture. The idea of an imprisoned doll looms large in his films, and it certainly describes the Julianne Moore characters in Safe and Far From Heaven (2002), housewives who look and act the part but are torn up from the emptiness of their performance. But then you must consider how, for the bisexual glitter kids of his loose Bowie tribute Velvet Goldmine, the makeup and clothing—indeed, the performance itself—express something liberating and authentic: the act of "being yourself" and pretending to be someone else are one and the same. Even for Haynes's conception of Bob Dylan in the biopic I'm Not There, a public persona is something to be escaped to as much as to be escaped from. And even for the imprisoned Moore of Safe, a rich homemaker who falls horribly, mysteriously ill, the organic commune that she joins after leaving her mansion is just as myopic and prescriptive. It's better, then, to say that Haynes's films comprise not a simple satire or denunciation of images and fakery, but a nuanced dialogue: a dialogue between people and their masks, their reflections, and their cultural ideals.
In many ways, Carol is Haynes's least "Haynesian" film to date: no stylistic mash-up, no unconventional narrative, no real challenge to a modern audience's comfort zone, and no highly self-conscious homages—at least, none as sustained or overt as those to Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven, or to Fellini and Pennebaker in I'm Not There. Much of that can surely be chalked up to the fact that this is the rare Haynes project that didn't originate with him. Cate Blanchett was attached and the first drafts of Phyllis Nagy's script (from the 1951 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith) were written well before Haynes signed on, though he reportedly contributed, without a formal writing credit, to reshaping the final narrative. Yet if nothing else for a director so fascinated with cinema's past, this places the film squarely in an older, pre-Sundance, pre-New Hollywood concept of American auteurism. It's easy to imagine this literary melodrama ending up in someone else's hands and still being an achingly tasteful, Weinstein-approved period piece primed and ready for the Best Actress race. And yet, caressed in soft-focus pastels, the beautiful strangeness of Carol is very much of-a-piece with Haynes's world, even as it expands it.
First and foremost, what's noteworthy about the lesbian love story of Carol is that it scarcely seems to be a love story at all. An older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), and a younger woman, Therese (Rooney Mara), meet at a department store during Christmas in the early 1950s. Therese is a shop girl waiting for her career to begin, Carol a wealthy customer going through a divorce. They start an odd, tentative friendship where little is outright spoken. Despite their differences in age and class, they take off on a road trip together, where sexual tension builds to an ecstatic release. There are many feelings at work here. Lust, certainly. Curiosity. Self-discovery. Loneliness, suffered through at first and then momentarily relieved. But do Carol and Therese ever connect enough to love one another? Carol comes across as instantly dominant and self-absorbed; she spends most of their early meetings talking over or passed Therese, her big red lips curved into a mischievous smile. (Cate Blanchett's wonderful performance can turn even a line as mundane as "thank you for driving me home" into an implicit declaration that she's the most important person in the room.)
Therese, so quiet, is harder to pin down, as her personality is meek but her internal life no less simmering. We see her early on watching Sunset Blvd., during one of those perverse scenes where Gloria Swanson has William Holden as her kept man. Is being "kept" by an older woman an idea that Therese is drawn to? There is something startlingly predatory in the way Carol places her hand on Therese's shoulder, but it is Therese who eagerly suggests sharing a hotel suite when Carol tries to book separate rooms. And it is Therese who, in the film's sexual and emotional climax, momentarily bursts through her own meekness and speaks in the imperative voice: "Take me to bed." When Carol undresses Therese, Carol's remark upon seeing her lover's naked body for the first time is a wistful "I never looked like that." What are we to make of these exchanges? For Carol, is Therese a fling? A way of feeling young again? Simply a conquest? And do Carol's motives even matter, if being conquered by this older woman is what Therese wants?
All of which is to say that anyone expecting a kind of Far From Heaven 2 is likely to be surprised, as what we have is a very different and more complicated study of erotic surrender. Don't be fooled by the title, or the fact that Oscar politics put Rooney Mara in the Supporting category: this is Therese's story, not Carol's. The Sirkian, rich-housewife melodrama that builds around Carol—will she be able to keep custody of her daughter, despite the judgements of a homophobic era?—is by far the most obligatory and least interesting part of the film, not least because it feels so borrowed, and even more because Carol's daughter is scarcely there.
But in Therese, we have a portrait of a young person cognizant of social norms but increasingly swayed by private, unspoken, transgressive fascinations, which she tests out with innocence even if she's not experienced enough to fully understand them. This kind of timid young figure has appeared in Haynes's cinema before: the nameless boy in the opening credits of Poison, running his hands over pearl necklaces, hairbrushes, and other symbols of feminine identity; the hero of the short film Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), whose childhood obsession with a Lucille Ball-esque TV actress worries his parents; and Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine, silently watching his dolled-up glam rock idol on TV and privately thinking, "That's me! That's me!" Yet more than any of his other feature films, Carol allows this figure, and her navigation through the world, to eloquently occupy an uncluttered center stage.
So it is a film, like nearly all of Haynes's films, about irrational impulse underneath smooth facades. And the facade, which as always applies not just to the characters, but to the setting itself, is something that Haynes relishes in composing. The film begins with the sound of a train pulling into a station, as all the commuters in fedoras and trench-coats pour into the street. We hear such a sound again to signal Therese's first flashback, only this time the image that follows is a toy train, not a real one—a clever note of sound design that conflates the film's "real world" with a plastic department store display. We then see Therese behind the counter, framed on all sides by children's dolls—dolls, again for Haynes—which indicate not simply innocence, but a kind of mass production. Along with the Santa hats (mandatory for Therese and her fellow shop girls) and the constant serenade of Christmas songs on the radio, they create a surface of mass culture, a public sphere where Therese can only see her desires reflected in subtext, and where a lesbian lifestyle like Carol's goes unacknowledged, even though privately everyone may already know of such things. Therese's boyfriend and Carol's ex-husband certainly have few illusions. And for those roles, it's some kind of coup that they cast actors as naturally likable as Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy (last seen as the rom-com boy-toy in Obvious Child), so we can watch them flail in anger when they realize that the objects of their affection don't need them at all. The film is nothing if not a loving ode to the private lives of women, right under the noses of men.
Published under a pseudonym when its environment was still fresh, Patricia Highsmith's novel must have been scandalous. Haynes's film is not; Far From Heaven made him genteel, and genteel he's been ever since. Like Far From Heaven, the very real social issues in Carol are too far removed into the world of a period piece to truly implicate or ruffle the present. Yet Carol is the more interesting film, precisely because of the personal, not the political, and because it presents a richer psychology of desire. Summarizing what the entire film is about, one of Therese's friends sympathetically offers his own thoughts on desire: "You don't know why. The only thing you really know is, you either are attracted or you're not." Therese's boyfriend gives a dated, less understanding view: that Queerness (and queerness) can be psychoanalytically explained away, because "there's always some reason for it in the background." It's no surprise which take Haynes aligns with. In his films, desire doesn't need to be explained; its irrationality is as sacred as it is profane. In a sense, this is the perfect worldview for melodrama, where stories are driven by emotions that can often seem capricious from the outside. And the story of Carol, like many romantic melodramas before it, comes down to a simple choice: to stay, or to go.
Highsmith, for her part, described her book as having a happy ending, because the two heroines end up together, building a new life. Well, something seems to have happened in adaptation. "The amazing thing about Sirk," Haynes once said, "is that he always had those false happy endings." That is, a Sirk masterpiece will ostensibly tidy up the plot, but in no way let you feel that everything is really resolved, or joyful, or can stay stable for ever after. Following their road trip, Therese and Carol are forced to part ways, and Therese lets go and begins to flourish independently and stake out her own voice. But Carol comes back. She invites Therese to move in with her. She tells Therese that she loves her, and having seen the film twice and studied Blanchett's face, I'm still not entirely sure we're supposed to believe her.
But of course, despite all hesitation, Therese says yes. The final image is the film's truly Haynesian crowning moment: Carol, with a peculiar smile, at once the Mona Lisa, the Eternal Mother, and the Big Bad Wolf, welcoming Therese back and raising so many ambiguities in the process. Carol is a liberating ideal, a woman who seeks and finds ways to have a respectable public face and illicit private pleasure at the same time. Yet she also makes a very ephemeral object of desire. Returning to her means returning to a relationship with an unequal balance of power, and it means fully inducting the young Therese into a world of glorious freedom on the one hand, and secrecy and isolation on the other. It's telling that in coming to Carol—in surrendering—Therese has to leave a party of peers her own age. And it's a testament to the filmmakers that in Therese's final choice, a "happy ending" in the sense that release wins out over repression, the audience should feel not just rapture, but danger. And they should be seduced by it anyway. This may be the simplest story Haynes has ever told. Done right, few things are more complex.


Todd Haynes
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