Perfect isn’t everything. In the annals of the cinema of 2015, some of the most startling films – Mad Max: Fury Road, The Assassin, Anomalisa – defy and deny perfection by their very experimental nature. They construct cinema out of uncertain girders and alien cement, and (especially with Mad Max) the ferocity and ambition of their go-for-broke aesthetic playfulness necessarily entails a certain wait-and-see imperfection around the edges. They are films that, at some level, are simply figuring things out. Some of these films are more challenging and rewarding cinematic tapestries precisely because the tapestries feel unfinished (picture the way that the characters in Anomalisa wear the claymation seams in their faces like markers of artifice in their personality). Anyone who wants these tapestries completed, and thus strained of their unique ambitions, may suffer from a mundane case of cinematic milquetoast.
Not so with Todd Haynes’ Carol, a work that is as perfectly compact, as snugly classical, and as devoutly calibrated a work of cinematic fiction as has been released in 2015. As a story of two women – the effortfully bougie Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and the not-quite-Kerouac-but-they-might-be-friends-of-friends Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) – falling in love in a society hellbent on confining their love to secretive, sequestered spaces and then invading those spaces still, Carol is necessarily chilly, precise cinema with little breathing room for experimental touches. But then, the world these two women occupy confines them to hiding their experiments, living according to a precise code and making themselves up with a scalpel lest the bludgeon of everyday society come down on their head. Calling the film a formalist’s wet dream is thus both a painterly expression of the film’s judicious, immaculate beauty and a reminder of how the film applies this beauty to its character’s souls: these are women who must live as formalists, who must control their every movement and paint with the thinnest of brushes. The film has no room for playful tangents because its characters have no such room.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt by Phyllis Nagy, Carol’s primary strength as a script is its reticence, its ascetic and stagnant reminder of characters who must choose every word carefully, for each open statement of affection could be their last. The film is left to construct its drama via the very mechanisms the characters do – set-design, costuming, physical appearance – which makes it the year’s most striking externalization of internal character tension, a work of theoretical expressonism if its characters weren’t so unable to express themselves openly. Sandy Powell’s costuming is the best of the year, exploring not only character emotion but alienation and power dynamics via the cohesion and color coordination of its two principal characters (not since Mother of George has it been this possible to discern the emotional narrative of a film and to descend into its inner crevices purely through the costumes). The studied, neutral, colluding pastel colors Carol wears, reflections of the way she has been taught to deny herself external emotion for fear of revealing her true self, are spliced apart in her most revealing moments wearing the passionate fires of red. Meanwhile, Therese’s often clashing outfits, crosshatches of lines and dots, externalize her more conflicted, more discordantly uneasy demeanor as a youth unsure of her future.
Carol is no simple runway show, though; the spaces around the characters are as thoughtfully cultivated. From the very beginning, we are dropped into a glass menagerie of fake human flesh, a department toy store circa Christmas 1952, in a sequence where the editing rhythms deliberately call attention to not only Carol the beguiling mystery but Therese the unproven, frail innocent (the way her pallid white skin is compared to the inhuman pasty white dolls positioned in the same frame as her face is a revelation). The scene, production designed by Judy Becker like every other location in the film, is a symphony of pageantry, predator, prey, and filmmaking that both adores classical cinematic representation and refutes it (very much a primer for a film that is, at its heart, a classical, even traditional love story with an unclassical twist). Carter Burwell’s score, a harsh-edged, almost noirish spin on a classically melodramatic Hollywood score, further expresses this duality of the classic and the perversion of the classic (a duality also evinced in a climactic scene that deliberately reflects, and then twists, David Lean’s stunning, and stunningly British, Brief Encounter).
However, all elements of the film stand in awe of Edward Lachmann’s steamy, transcendent cinematography, perched on top of a style that recalls and hints at both the films of Douglas Sirk and the translucent photography of Saul Leiter but mimics neither. Lachmann’s cinematography plays on faded color – indeed, it couldn’t exist without color – but it applies a distinctly monochromatic filter to the lens that evokes the astringent, indifferent danger of cinematic noir. Even more telling, he applies a distinctly gauzy haze to the celluloid, historically a technique utilized to produce an aura of mystique, allure, and romantic mystery. Here, however, Carol manages to twist that technique into something more alienating and desperate, largely by shooting characters through foggy car windows throughout to separate us from them and slightly dilute the tangible physicality of the humans until they appear to almost disappear before us. It’s a sterling, threatening gesture, a blending of old Hollywood allure and post-Hollywood malevolence, much like the film itself, and an expression of how these women are both brought to life and denied life by the simultaneously suffocating and life-giving aura of classical cinema.
Which brings us to, of course, Mara and Blanchett, two actresses who breathe life into their characters because they exist in disharmony with one another. The prickly, angular Mara – an almost punishingly brittle, modernist presence – and the sultry, husky-voiced Blanchett, who epitomizes old Hollywood glamor more lusciously than arguably any actress working today – construct fully-formed characters. But the film thrives precisely because the relationship between the two wouldn’t work without the contrast between the two stars selling the different internal and external personalities of these two women; alone, they are incomplete.
All of which avoids a discussion of Todd Haynes, the auteur working for the first time with a script he didn’t write and directing a feature film for the first time in eight years, here – arguably more than ever before – humbly ceding ground to his ostensible subordinates in his most conventional film ever released. The obvious comparison point is his 2002 masterpiece Far From Heaven, but that experimental film was a much more full-throated descent into the visual vocabulary of cinema in the mid-century and the world of cinema as a collective dream. Carol has a lower barrier of entry, perhaps a positive spin on the admittedly begrudging reality that Carol is the least auteurist film Haynes has ever released, and likely the most anonymous. It feels a little like a palate cleanser, or a denial of Haynes’ more idiosyncratic instincts, but it is testament to Carol’s sublime composition and articulate mastery of more traditional cinematic craft that the film’s conventional harbor becomes an afterthought to how stunningly realized these particular conventions are.