In Todd Haynes' new film, Cate Blanchett plays Carol, the object of uncharted desire for Therese (Rooney Mara), a young girl ill-equipped to handle this foreign attraction.
Since the film exists in the closed-minded postwar years, circa late 40s, the courtship the two women find themselves in is not one they're able to celebrate without the judgmental eyes of the status quo. It's a conflict that has driven many a great film, as it did with Brokeback Mountain
, but the triumph of Carol
has less to do with the 'gay dilemma' than the problem of good old-fashioned love and the consuming vulnerability that arises from falling for the first time.
Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, an author most renowned for her suspense works like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Carol is a beautifully authentic relationship story with its psychological focus on the lovesick. Haynes approaches the material with an utmost romantic elegance, wherein a glance has the ability to communicate as much weight as a sonnet, thanks to the powerhouse performances of Blanchett and Mara.
With stunning cinematography and art-direction echoing the grace of its characters, Carol is a pivotal addition to the cinema of love, as defined by genuinely romantic, emotion-fueled films such as David Lean's Brief Encounter. Much like Lean's film ceases to age on account of its central truth, Carol deserves to stand the test of time.
ScreenAnarchy: What was your relationship with Patricia Highsmith's book, THE PRICE OF SALT? Can you recall the first time you read it and the impact it had on you?
Todd Haynes: It really did have quite an effect on me. I read a bunch of Highsmith after I read (The Price of Salt) and I'd seen adaptations of her films, of course. I feel like I'd read The Talented Mr. Ripley years and years ago, but I just found Salt to be the most - especially as I continued to read other works - the most consistent in this pathologizing of the central character's point of view, and yet maybe that's muddled, because it pathologizes the act of falling in love, while it completely domesticates the act of murder. What it does is it draws a line between the two.
You see how the amorous imagination is so similar to the practice of the criminal mind, because you're thrust outside of the world, you're thrust into a land of reading and trying to decode every sign and signal, and how it might affect your outcome. For the lover, the outcome is, "Do they love me back?" There's a mortality. That's a mortal question. You're really on the line with that question, as the murderer is. It was just so beautifully done. I just found that to be so smart and so acute.
Maybe this is a question for Phyllis Nagy (CAROL's screenwriter), but the book is far more subjective than the film. The book is Therese's POV through and through.
Can you discuss the decision to divide the narrative evenly between Therese and Carol?
That became my very first question when I read the script. Then I needed to gain some knowledge and some examples of other great love stories on film and how they position subjectivity or point of view and how much you are, in the most resonant ones and most beautiful ones, you're on the side of a victim, you're on the side of the vulnerable party, the lover. That's certainly true for Price of Salt, except that Therese does change in the course of the events that occur between her and Carol. She develops defenses and boundaries, and she grows up, and that utter openness changes. When she comes back or she agrees to see Carol near the end of the movie, they really change positions, and Carol is the one who's given up and who is vulnerable and who could be crushed.
That's why that reference to Brief Encounter or that structuring element from Brief Encounter became so exciting, meaningful, a kind of structural narrative device, because we could replay that scene, as they do in Brief Encounter. You go through the whole story and you understand the meaning of that original conversation if it wasn't interrupted, but now at the end, you also come around it from the other character's point of view, because now that's the character who could be hurt. You only remember the side when you're the woundable party, but it does change.
In the book, Carol wounds her throughout the entire story.
She really does.
Which is not so much the case in the film. She's a softer character.
It was even less that way when I first read the adaptation. Phyllis really loved going back to the book in ways that I encouraged her to do in the drafts we did, in the work we did together. I think in all the years of them trying to get a financier to appeal to that, the financial interests wanted to kind of soften or defang things a little bit and create an immediate rapport between the women and a charming ease. I was like, "Oh man, no." It's so much more interesting for that to be deprived from Therese and to feel how precarious her status is in the presence of Carol.
Really the film is so much a story about heartbreak as a sort of initiation into a more adult definition of love. I find it interesting that beyond the gender thing, as you were saying last night, it's more than anything else a love story. And far more relevant than the characters' sexual orientation is the experience level - the age gap.
It is, exactly. It's a major cultural reverse for the object of desire to be the older woman. That in and of itself is so interesting and it's so great. I just found that to be so, so fascinating. It created interesting challenges I think for the actors too, just funny things about the way they're both these beautiful women, but how they present themselves as women is so meaningful and every element of those signifiers matter.
For Therese (Rooney), when we were trying to find the wig shape and cut the wig for the more girlish Therese, which she is through most of the movie, we were looking at one Helen Levitt photograph, I think it was, and we just loved the flip of this girl's hair in the wind. It was so cool, and we were trying to mimic it and it just wasn't coming out right. Rooney was getting really bummed out and she's like, "I don't need to be hot or anything, but you also have to believe that Carol would see something in this girl." It's a real balance. She has to be somebody, sort of unformed, awkward, not put together yet, so that you see the change, but also somebody for whom it's evident there's a spark of beauty, obviously, in ways.
Right, she's unconcerned with her appearance, which doesn't not make her beautiful. She just didn't play with dolls when she was a kid.
Exactly, but you have to ride that line carefully.
I know that the protagonists of FAR FROM HEAVEN, MILDRED PIERCE, and CAROL are older than your mother, younger than your grandmother, but I'm wondering if there were strong women in your life growing up that made you gravitate toward these kind of protagonists.
Yes, definitely, and very strong-willed women, and I'm referring more to my mom, and then her mom, who was a huge part of my life as well, but very ladylike, respectively. Even my mom, who was just shy of this '60s, '70s liberation, coming of age in those years, she still was coming of age in the late '50s, but incredibly determined and willful and effective in getting what she wanted, and wildly devoted to her kids. No one like a Mildred... It's all variations, I don't know, at least on a physicality of Mildred Pierce.
Mildred has to find her strength and independence as well. The whole story is all immediately post-marriage.
Yeah, that is absolutely true, but there's something in the sinew of her bones and her body, and I just thought of Kate Winslet when I read it, when I read the novel. I just saw that body, because that body is a vital working engine, and we see it in movies, both erotically and as a piece of production.
I just knew that she would throw that body into the task, and she did. That body becomes such an interesting laborer in the terrain of middle class values and demonstrating the kind of potential of the American pursuit in the maternal version of it, but maybe that is the ultimate version of the worker is the mother working for their child.
Absolutely. There's probably no real connection here, but I find it interesting that MILDRED PIERCE is the anomaly in Noir writer, James Cain's library and THE PRICE OF SALT is the anomaly in Highsmith's body of suspense.
That is absolutely true. I think that is actually really interesting.
Has it crossed your mind?
Yes. It really did, but only really recently, as the only two direct adaptations from novels I've done in my films, and both of them being outliers for their relative, respective careers for their originators, authors.
We really wanted to restore so many things about the (Mildred Pierce) novel and remove the criminal element that was reimposed on Mildred Pierce by Hollywood and make it that sort of third-person portrait of a woman in a family.
The James Cain ending is just perfect to me, "Let's get stinko."
Oh my god, it's so fantastic. It's just one of the great endings of an American novel.
In CAROL, I love so much the sort of in-joke - I think it's an in-joke - when Therese and her friends are watching a film from a projection room and one character is tracking the correlation between what the characters say and what they're actually thinking or feeling. CAROL strikes me as a film that's so much in the looks, and it's not to say the characters are saying things they don't feel, but still, it's so much more the power of glances I think. If you agree, can you talk about directing a film that exists in this space where things go unsaid?
Yeah, absolutely. I love what Rooney said after the screening last night. It was so true and universal, which is that most people really don't know how to express themselves. Actors are paid and we go to see movies to watch them express feelings that we can't and that we don't, and that we don't have the language for, we don't have the visual language for, the expressive language for. For the most part, people struggle within; not only the limits of language, but also the inability to even know how we feel at different times. These characters, we're encountering them learning very intensely how they feel, but that is pounding up against the limits of what's possible given their time and place. You feel the tension, and it's what all great stories do, they create tremendous barriers between the lovers. They're usually social barriers. They almost always become, to some degree, morality tales about a social moment.
We yearn for the desire to triumph, and it almost never does in the greatest love stories, because we're left yearning for it more in the end and we wish the world were different as a result. I do love that. You see these people functioning, where their gestures and their words have a limited range of possibility, and so it forces us to read between what they're saying and what's possible, to look at what's between the glass separating them, the glances separating them, or even linking them at times.