God, Carol is so good. This is probably Todd Haynes’ best film and a nice companion piece to Far From Heaven.
Slight SPOILERS below
Cate Blanchett is Carol Aird, opposite Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet. Aird is a housewife, Belivet a shopkeeper. They fall slowly in illicit love in this subtle, extraordinary look at 1950s relationships.
Is there any role that Cate Blanchett can’t play? Her Carol Aird is spot-on perfect. All of those little affectations have a place here: she’s playing a 50s housewife playing a 50s housewife. Aird’s “perfect” public mannerisms slowly fall away as the film progresses and become more intimate. It’d be a beautiful case study to watch Blanchett transform Aird from her first meeting with Belivet to a later, amorous interaction.
Todd Haynes is still clearly the heir of Sirk and Fassbinder. Here his fascination with melodrama is clear, but like his predecessors he picks apart the style. If a typical melodrama turns on the idea that histrionic plot points take precedence over character development, then Carol is actually a far cry from melodrama.
In fact, none of the plot points are hysterical (meaning: this is melodrama only in visual reference), and that’s another reason that this film is great. The pace is methodical, the camera equally so. Even when a gun is introduced into the plot its usage – unloaded, useless – says more about the character than conventional genre mechanics.
Haynes has plenty of long takes in here, but we aren’t talking the trendy type of oners that play out bombastically or with bravado. His here are subtler and some only apparent if you’re looking for them (an idea which always makes me think of the “second” long take in Touch of Evil).
There’s a great one as Carol and Therese get in a car to go to Chicago. I can’t get stills for the film yet, but the camera dollies alongside the glass (this is a film obsessed with reflections), pulls back and away, and then cranes up majestically as the vehicle leaves.
The opening shot is a memorable long take, with an allegorical opening frame that quickly turns from a beautiful pattern (that I took to be a subway gate) into a prison metaphor.
But the best long take is between Therese and her boyfriend Richard Semco (Jack Lacy) in the former’s apartment. Haynes picks the perfect location – a simple place with a dividing wall that allows a view into two different rooms – and the perfect camera position. Therese and Richard move in and out, from room to room. The timing is perfect. The camera simply pans. It’s energetic and classy.
Carol made me think of timing more than most other films. It’s not just a well-blocked master like the aforementioned, but also smaller moments. Like one where Therese rides on the back of a bicycle, in wide, long take, with a friend. They have a conversation which begins precisely at the head of the shot and ends as they ride away from camera and into the distance. Many films would cut in to manipulate time and space and make the conversation fit the length of the path on which the riders pedal. Haynes’ film is so precise that there’s no cut-in. I assume this was often-rehearsed (or maybe it’s just a simple matter for such good actors: “Start your conversation here. End it here.”).
For a film that often feels so effortless, there are a lot of tricks being pulled out of the bag. Haynes has great reveals (like the one near the ice chest of Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith in a nice performance), angles that are slightly off – either just higher than eye level or just pushing a character to a point where they’re slightly obscured (there are better examples than this one, but it’s the best I can find right now)-
-to shift power dynamics and add a sense of tension and unease. The ending features the first overt slow motion in the film and combines with a handheld camera to create a sensation not yet seen in the movie to that point.
It’ll be hard to beat this for me for film of the year. It’s perfect, I think.