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Surface Matters

Todd Haynes’s “Carol” mistakes aesthetics for meaning.

This is not meant as a slight: Todd Haynes is the quintessential art directors’ director. From the stylish, white-and-beige sterility of Safe (1995) to the glam-rock sheen of Velvet Goldmine (1998) to the sumptuous Technicolor of Far from Heaven (2002), Haynes has long been a pleasingly precise warden of the textures and patterns of twentieth-century metropolitan American life. Indeed, his inclination to not step beyond that century in his films but rather continue to mine it for material is instructive. In particular, the focus on the sexual, psychological, and cultural repressions of midcentury modernity (with protagonists that push with lesser or greater success against them) while remaining subject to a carefully totalizing, period-appropriate stylistic vision has tended to animate Haynes’s oeuvre. He often seems to want it both ways, highlighting the surface to suggest that it is a direct reflection of what lies beneath.

His new movie, Carol, continues in this signature vein. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 cult novel of lesbian love, The Price of Salt, the film traces the affair between two central characters: Therese Belivet, a young New York shop girl and aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara), and Carol Aird, an older, upper-middle-class married woman (Cate Blanchett). In Carol, Haynes collaborates again with Ed Lachman, his favored director of photography, along with the Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, and watching the film feels something like running one’s finger along a luxuriously soft piece of velvet or a highly burnished nugget of amber—all dusky lights and shadows, deliciously tactile contours, and golden-ratio angles. This is true of the film’s architecture, furniture, and clothing, and it holds for its protagonists as well, chiefly Blanchett’s Carol, who is presented as a vision of sealed-off exquisiteness, the absolute embodiment of Haynes’s broader formal impulses.

Blanchett’s version of the character seems similar, at least initially, to the one Highsmith created in The Price of Salt. Like Blanchett, whose loveliness is often dissected by the camera’s eye into parts—chestnut fur coat, elegantly slim ankles, crimson fingernails, nip-waist suits, smooth curtain of blond hair—the novel’s Carol is a collection of sensate, glinting impressions hovering about her: eyes that are “gray, colorless yet dominant as light or fire”; a “slim hand with … oval red nails and a sprinkling of freckles on its back”; a scent “suggestive of dark-green silk”; a lipstick case, “golden like a jewel, and shaped like a sea chest.” What ties these impressions together, however, differs in the film and the novel. The Price of Salt is told from the point of view of Therese, whose internal reflections unite Carol’s parts, if tenuously. And despite the meticulousness of Haynes’sadaptation, the complexity of Therese’s attitude—sometimes tortured, sometimes joyful, above all animated by desire—is lost, and with it much of the strange energy and ambiguous pleasures of Highsmith’s inimitable book. Carol, as its title change suggests, concentrates much more on Blanchett’s character than Mara’s, and one could say that with its Carol-centric gaze, which sees only flawless surface, the movie becomes Therese’s gaze, makes her adoring perspective the viewer’s. What ends up defining film-Carol, however, beyond her incontrovertible perfection, is the movie’s plot, which focuses on and teases out her actions—many of which are only implicit in the book—in a way that seals them in place, makes them more conventional, and leaves much less room for ambiguous, complex interiority.

Carol and The Price of Salt share the same basic story line. In both, Therese meets Carol during the Christmas rush at the toy department of a big midtown Manhattan store, where the latter comes to buy a gift for her daughter, Rindy. Therese, who works at the store, is young, inexperienced, struggling, with no family to speak of. She is listlessly dating Richard, an aspiring painter, whom she isn’t truly attracted to. Carol, meanwhile, is in the process of divorcing her businessman husband, Harge, in part due to a lesbian affair she had with a friend. Therese and Carol fall in love, with Therese breaking off her relationship with Richard, and Carol finalizing her separation from Harge while locked in a battle for Rindy. The two women decide to take a car trip out West together, over the course of which they consummate their affair. Once they discover that Harge has sent a detective after them to seek proof of their entanglement and use it to his advantage in the custody fight, they end the trip, and Carol breaks off ties with Therese. The novel’s ending, however, suggests there is a potential future for the two lovers, with Carol’s loss of Rindy to Harge opening the door to a shared life with Therese.

Toward the beginning of Carol, a film buff that Therese meets explains to her that while watching a movie he is interested in “plotting the correlation between what the characters say and what they feel.” Elucidating this connection, of course, is a generally challenging thing for movies to do, as it is for any visual medium that attempts to present the lives and relationships of subjects who are simultaneously social and psychological. And Haynes deals with it somewhat stiffly. While there is no voice-over—that often clumsy filmic glue used to tell rather than show characters’ inner motivation—there is much use, perhaps even overuse, of the meaningful gesture or look: the lingering hand placed, for a beat too long, on a shoulder or back of the neck; the long-held gaze across a crowded room. While Highsmith’s novel is doubtlessly invested in wordless gazes (when Therese sees Carol for the first time at the store, we are told that “their eyes met at the same instant … [and] Therese could not look away”), the book also gives us access to Therese’s inner life—her loneliness, her fears, her repulsions, her desires—to layer under and so prop up these ocular encounters.

Mara, with her small, foxlike face, gives as strong a performance as the film allows her to. Which is to say, in the role of the inexperienced, frightened waif, she mostly expresses inexperienced, frightened waifishness with mute glances and quick, shy declarations. (Similar limits seem to be circumscribing the performance of Blanchett, who is a very good actress as well as stunningly beautiful, but almost exclusively works here in the very narrow register of wasp-y resplendence.) In Highsmith’s book, Therese hopes to become a stage-set designer, a profession the novel uses as a trope not just to suggest her lack of a place in the world and her wish to dream one into existence, but also to signify her desire to figure out the insides of things, beyond their surface (she envisions building a set with an “interior with more depth than breadth”), and her simultaneous understanding that this figuring-out might not be possible. (She imagines the same set with “a kind of vortex down the center.”) Carol, however, turns Therese into an aspiring photographer, a choice that makes sense within the film’s larger visual-centric logic. Carol grooms Therese, buying her an expensive camera to encourage her pursuit, and Therese repays the favor by treating Carol as the ultimate subject, taking black-and-white portraits with which, it seems, she captures her lover’s resolved essence.

This idea of Carol’s characterological comprehensibility is aided by the film’s shifting of emphasis to the story of her marriage and motherhood, a story that in Highsmith’s novel remains mostly in the shadowy background. The legal fight for custody of her daughter—Carol’s love for Rindy, her outrage at Harge’s calling her lesbianism a morally suspect pattern, and her fierce belief that she is no less of a good mother because of her sexual choices—make Carol’s intentions transparent and the movie something of a straightforward, impossible-to-disagree-with liberal polemic. And in contradistinction to earlier Haynes movies like Far from Heaven, which also dealt with socially constructed taboos like interracial relationships and gay male lust, the adaptation here is not over-the-top or pulpy—nor is it campily, joyfully superficial like the glitzy, Bowie-esque romp that was Velvet Goldmine—but handsome, respectable, predictable.

Highsmith’s novel, in its insistence on articulating the tenability of a love that dare not speak its name, was a polemic too, if only by virtue of how unique it was in its time. But there was no suggestion in it that loving or even grasping another person’s interiority can ever be fully achieved. In a hotel during their journey West, Therese “lay in her own bed … trying to read the meaning of the restless, puzzled look in Carol’s eyes that would stare at something in the room for a moment and then move on. Was it of her she thought, or of Harge, or of Rindy?” And, later, when Carol is both distraught as she searches for a tape recorder she suspects Harge’s detective of planting in the hotel room and yet dismissive of the threat of being spied on: “The resolution of those contradictory facts was nowhere but in Carol herself, unresolved, in her slow, restless step as she walked to the door now and turned, in the nonchalant lift of her head, and in the nervous line of her eyebrows that registered irritation in one second and in the next were serene.”

Resolution, such as it is, only resides in the unresolved, which is why the novel’s open-endedness, with Therese walking toward a waiting Carol after a period of separation, is so apt. And in Carol’s final scene, in which Therese advances, too, toward a smiling Carol—the camera suddenly shaky to match her uncertain, excitable gait—the promise of closure, although crucially not its delivery, provides the movie with its one truly alive moment.