Saturday, November 21, 2015

Carol: The predicament of looking

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett star in director Todd Haynes' sublime new romance Carol.

You see someone across the room, and you instantly feel a connection. You do not have the words to express what you feel, but you know you are changed by this moment. Your image of this person is filtered through your past, your present, your vision of the future, your expectations of this person, and the other thousand things that can come between the two of you. You must fight through all these filters until you are face to face with this other person, and only then can you truly connect.

So goes the love story at the center of director Todd Haynes sumptuous new film Carol. The film stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, two women who fall in love but whose romance is complicated by the prevailing social norms of the early 1950s. Haynes was in attendance Wednesday night at the Lincoln Center in New York City for a screening of Carol and an extended conversation to kick off the Film Society’s retrospective “Todd Haynes: The Other Side of Dreams.”

Dennis Lim and Haynes at the Lincoln Center.
The series, which runs through Nov. 29, will feature all of Hayne’s feature films, several of his shorts, and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Each screening will be paired with a film hand-picked by Haynes and cited as either a direct or indirect influence on the filmmaker’s work, and Haynes will be on hand to introduce and discuss several of the films.

With its post-World War II setting and gay love story, Carol is sure to remind viewers of Haynes’ earlier film Far from Heaven, but while the two share certain similarities, Carol is much grittier and more intensely focused. Rather than try to encompass the malaise of an entire generation as he did in that previous work, Haynes narrows his focus to the specific experiences of Carol and Therese. The script, written by Phyllis Nagy and based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, makes us a part of this world and shows us life from the perspective of two stoic but vulnerable women.

“For me, it was an opportunity to explore the love story in a way that I felt like I really hadn’t done in movies,” said Haynes. “On the one hand, it made me think of how I felt when I was in Therese’s shoes, as many of us have all been, falling in love, maybe when we’re much younger, maybe not, where you feel completely like you are inventing a language, like no one has ever experienced this before, like you’re completely at the mercy of the power of the person who you’re obsessed over and reading the signs and indicators of how they feel about you.

“But what’s interesting about this is it’s both universal, and it’s intensely historically specific because that’s really true about lesbian representation at this time, even more than gay male representation. So it has both very specific historical relevance and accuracy, but it also speaks to a feeling that we’ve all had when we don’t have that historical specificity to support it.”

Therese is a Manhattan shopgirl who first meets Carol when the older woman is picking out a doll to give to her young daughter for Christmas. Therese is instantly struck by this woman but has no frame of reference for her feelings. Haynes pointed out that in the novel, Therese says she would “call it love, except Carol is a woman.” It is this discrepancy between raw emotion and social convention that drives the narrative, and Haynes and his two lead actresses play off this cognitive dissonance wonderfully.

In a way, both women are forced to fight who they are. For her part, Therese barely understands this strange new experience of falling for a woman and tries to rationalize her actions to her friends and ersatz partner Richard. While Carol has carried on relationships with women before, she is in the midst of a messy divorce and still must learn to navigate the murky waters of female sexuality – let alone female homosexuality – at a time when women who stepped outside the norm were perceived as mentally unbalanced.

Blanchett and Mara are perfectly keyed in to this struggle, and though about half the movie depicts each character’s separate life, the central romance is so engrossing that everything else seems to fall away – as it would for two new lovers. Carol’s seduction of Therese is quick but not easy and takes place in a series of exchanges full of silence and anxiety, which Haynes took from the novel but did not find in the first draft of the script he read.

“I felt when I first read [Nagy’s] first draft that there was something – and she immediately agreed with me when I talked to her about it – that had been defanged in her treatment of the novel,” said Haynes. “The novel has such great disquiet and anxiety between the two women, and in the script, the first draft I read, there was a kind of congeniality between them right away. It felt like this has been adjusted for financiers. This had been eased along the long, arduous process of trying to get it made, and when I talked to Phyllis about that tension and that disquiet, she was like, ‘Yes! Great! Let’s get that back in the script.’”

Haynes’ instinct was correct, and the heavy silences, during which neither Therese nor Carol knows what to make of the other, are among the best moments in the film. In these seemingly blank spaces, Blanchett and Mara are tasked with conveying a range of complex emotions with a single glance or furrowed brow, and Haynes was quick to point out the actresses’ contribution to the success of the film.

Lim and Haynes speak after a screening of Carol.
“It is all in those silences and the lack of dialogue and the gestures,” said Haynes. “Some of those moments are very clearly marked and described in the script, but it’s also I think that really great performances like Rooney’s, which sort of conducts the way we look at both her face reading Carol and what she’s seeing in Carol, it’s so cognizant of the proportions of film as a medium and how much trust it gives to the viewer to invite interpretation and that if she did any more, it would be like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ It’s indicating too much. It’s telling too much. If she did any less, it would feel maybe vacant or unengaging or uninteresting, and it’s just walking that really delicate line.”

The director had similar praise for Blanchett, particularly with regard to her awareness of the camera and its meaning. At different points through the film, Blanchett must keep track of where her character is both emotionally and in relation to how Therese feels about her. She must project her true self and the image of herself that Therese is seeing at various moments in the story. Blanchett, who was instrumental in getting the film made in the first place, has a facility for this kind of nuanced character acting that is simply stunning to watch.

“The amazing thing about this performance of Cate’s is that Cate is aware of her proximity to the viewer so acutely and basically has to depict the image of Carol through the eyes of Therese and then various shades of a closer proximity to the real, complicated, and often ambivalent woman behind that image,” said Haynes. “If she wasn’t aware of that and almost always aware of where the camera is and what it’s doing when it’s photographing her – whose point of view it’s assuming at different times in the movie – the language of the movie wouldn’t work.”

The language of the film is its imagery as we almost always view these characters through windows or mirrors or curtains or some combination of factors. The visual narrative then becomes the stripping away of these filters standing between Carol and Therese but also between the audience and the characters.

“The interest in filtering and creating barriers between us and the objects we’re looking at just reveals the predicament of looking and maybe at some level stokes desire because when there’s something in the way, you want to get around it, and you’re aware of the act that you are looking,” said Haynes. “When there’s nothing in the way, you don’t even have to think about looking as a predicament, but this continually puts something between us, so it is filtering. Cate and Rooney also participated in that visual language. Just as the way I was describing Cate’s sensitivity toward where the camera was and how she was being depicted through these filters, that visual language was a starting point for everybody involved.”

Haynes skillfully holds the viewer at a distance throughout the film, mirroring for us the experience Therese has with Carol, until finally there are no more barriers to overcome, no more filters to remove. It is at this moment for the characters and the audience that everything becomes clear, and once it is, we are truly able to connect.

Lovers and Lollipops

Haynes chose to pair Carol with Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s 1956 romantic comedy Lovers and Lollipops, which follows the story of a single mother introducing her 7-year-old daughter to her new boyfriend. The film is a funny, honest snapshot of its time and place and captures a version of New York City that heavily influenced Haynes’ portrayal of the city in Carol.

Lovers and Lollipops
Lovers and Lollipops was a discovery because I didn’t know about it, and I was really interested in evoking natural light and natural settings in New York City at this time, but I wasn’t finding great examples of that from Hollywood at the period,” said Haynes. “Well, Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel were partners, as I mentioned earlier, and they made these films together, and Lovers and Lollipops, unlike Little Fugitive, which is about a little boy who runs off to Coney Island for the day, this one really took place in a lot of the locations that are relevant to Carol, including a scene in Macy’s toy floor.

“Macy’s in Lovers and Lollipops is like a disaster area. There’s trash on the floor and kids rolling around and tired shopwomen and pegboard walls, and [production designer] Judy Becker and I were like, ‘Pegboard, yes! We’re going to put pegboard all over Carol.’ People are always saying, ‘Carol is such a stylish-looking film,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ It’s dingy and distressed, and I love that about it. I mean Carol is stylish, and the clothes are great looking because people dressed that way in the ’50s, but I love the distress of it.”

In addition to the photography, Lovers and Lollipops was a tremendous influence on the depiction of Carol and Therese as women of the period, and Haynes said Blanchett and Mara took great inspiration from Lori March’s central performance.

“The woman represents a kind of lost example of femininity that you don’t see in actresses from the period and we haven’t seen since – maybe you see glimmers of it in your grandmothers – and it’s a kind of poised, slightly mannered version of a woman that is just kind of a lost iconography,” said Haynes. “It was just so interesting to both Cate and Rooney in looking at how to build these characters, who are both very different kinds of women in Carol, but this central character in Lovers and Lollipops was instrumental in that development for both actresses.”

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