Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Carol (2015)

Riding in Cars (With Boys)
The Talented Ms. Highsmith

A lot of movies have stuck with me over time this year—mostly because so many of what I saw were templated run-of-the-studio-mill disappointments—but the one that has stayed with me the longest and with the most vibrancy is Todd Haynes' adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt." 

At the time of its publication (1952 and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), it caused a bit of a sensation. Highsmith had one published novel "Strangers on a Train" to her credit (after years of writing comic books) and her publisher, Harper and Bros., refused "Salt" as too risqué for a major publisher. Coward-McCann published it in hardback in '52 and a Bantam pulp paperback released in 1953. It sold over a million units. That's a lot of traffic for a "Novel of a Love Society Forbids" (as the Bantam blurb read). 

But, "The Price of Salt" was different. In her writings, Highsmith's characters live on the fringe of "polite" Society's morés (her most popular creation, "The Talented Mr. Ripley," was a sociopath for whom murder was merely an inconvenience), and "The Price of Salt" (or the simpler, more on-target title "Carol" it received when it was re-published in 1990—this time with Highsmith's name on it) is no different—it tells the story of a lesbian love-affair in the Eisenhower 1950's. 

That subject matter was not without precedent. But it was the first where the women did not suffer some punishment (rumored to be a requirement for publication), such as shaming, madness, or suicide, for "straying" from their expected roles and in fact, giving them, if not a happy ending, at least a hopeful one, a welcome relief to closeted readers who had enough of that in real life, thank you.
Haynes' Carol (with a screenplay by Highsmith acquaintance Phyllis Nagy) is extraordinary. Filmed in 16mm, giving it a nice, pulpy "period" feel, it follows the story of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), working a seasonal job at a Macy's toy counter while trying to establish herself in a career in photography, who encounters Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who is shopping for her daughter, without a clue what to get her. Her mind may be preoccupied, given how her marriage to husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, who's extraordinary here) is on the rocks, and the present might be some leverage in who she gets to spend Christmas with. The two take interest in each other and when carol leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese takes special pains to make sure that they are returned to her in the mails.
A thank-you phone call turns into lunch, and lunch turns into a visit, and the visit turns into a crisis where Carol must spend Christmas alone. And on the spur of the moment, she asks Therese if she wants to get out of town. And things get complicated, leaving one party conflicted and having to make a painful choice and the other abandoned and pained. Did I say a happy ending? Well, it's complicated. Love is like that.
A seemingly insignificant touch of the hand changes meaning in the film.
The story is told in flash-back, with just the hint of mystery to it. Carol and Therese meet at a restaurant and talk, but are interrupted by one of Therese's friends who invites her to a party. His presence makes Carol uncomfortable and begs off to allow Therese her night out with friends. On the way, Therese remembers, establishing a motif that Haynes will use again and again (but not to obviousness and not to annoyance). 
From that point on, the movie is rarely without barriers—in fact, Therese remembers the story seen through a rain-fogged window of the car she's being spirited away in. So much of the film will take place in cars, on the road, or from a distanced perspective where things simply get in the way, making we, the audience, work a little harder and maybe identify with the characters as they view the world surreptitiously, and (although this may be stretching things a bit) get a sense of the restrictions they might be feeling in a world where feelings can't be "open."
I've made mention of Kyle Chandler—he has a scene where he has to act like a fussing child that is quite amazing—but the movie hinges on and is blessed by the performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Mara has been an interesting actress to watch—she has the "otherness" look of a space alien, but her acting is so mercurial that she has always been memorable—that was the point of her tiny role in The Social Network (where she was first "noticed")—she had to be memorable. Ever since, she has been playing characters that exploit that "otherness" vibe, but here, she is as normal as can be, in a story where norms are not always an advantage (and are frequently dis-advantageous, if not threatening). For the first time in my memory, she is not playing a character entirely in control of herself and fully formed. There's a yearning Hepburn (Audrey category) ingenue quality to her that is poignant and hitherto unseen.
And Blanchett is a wonder. She's always had a steel-edged directness to her, but in Carol (the movie is named for her character, as if as an object of obsession), she is circumspect, a bit unknowable, looking at the world slightly askance. Observing her, as if in Therese's place, she seems not quite trustworthy, not altogether obvious, a bit of a mystery, as an affectionate object is at the beginning of a relationship. What brings the two together is also a mystery, other than mutual need—Carol's marriage to Harge is a disaster, one supervised and chaperoned by his disapproving dragon of a mother. And Therese is feeling pressure to get married to Richard (Jake Lacy)—by Richard. She's not in a hurry, but he is, and she knows that one's she's locked into marriage, any aspirations of her own life and independence are over.
In a way, both women have a desire to be free at a time when women can't. So, a road-trip at Christmas, the holiday of obligations, seems like a wish-fulfillment fantasy. But, freedom isn't free (as we're constantly reminded by bumper-stickers) and despite their lack of tinselly entanglements, they can't entirely escape them, either. Maybe you can't go home again, but home doesn't ever leave your mind or consciousness, either.
There is a lovely shot in Carol, that is evocative and simple. Time has passed since that Christmas. Therese has moved on. Things have "settled." After the events that have served as bookends for the flashback of their story, Therese emerges from another New York party, not really connecting with anyone. Haynes has a simple shot—Therese, post-party on the street, in the dark, with a single solitary street-light hovering over her. It's a cliche image, but not the way Haynes shoots it. It informs that shot for what comes next and does it without words, as an evocative projection that the best of cinema can offer—code that touches a nerve deep in our alligator-brains that can be universally perceived, understood and felt. That it's beautiful, too, is just frosting.
Carol stayed with me a long time, long after more recent film screenings dissolved like cotton candy. If it is not my favorite film of the year, it is in the top three of a very eclectic mix. Well worth seeing and being haunted by.

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