Notes on Carol and Director Todd Haynes

CAROL -- RS Main Image

I really want to love director Todd Haynes, whose interests and sensibilities are so much like mine that he must be my brother from another mother (the rich, successful side of the family, obviously). Two of his rescue missions have particular resonance for me. Mildred Pierce is one – though the Joan Crawford film is brilliant and irreplaceable, it condenses and rewrites James M. Cain’s novel beyond recognition, and it definitely deserved a remake. The other is Haynes’ Far From Heaven, an hommage to the great Douglas Sirk, whose stylistic imprint is all over Haynes’ melodrama. Far From Heaven helped raise the general awareness of Sirk – which, to my way of thinking, is The Lord’s Work.

Yet while there were many elements I admired, neither project really clicked for me. Hayne’s Mildred Pierce – a mini-series, running nearly six hours – was far more faithful to Cain. On the other hand, Kate Winslet’s flavorless performance is a big disappointment, and the opera subplot – so full of period-appropriate detail in the book – feels generic and dumbed down. Far From Heaven is visually spectacular, and the perfectly cast Julianne Moore is terrific. But in putting the story’s transgressiveness front-and-center, Haynes underestimates Sirk, whose own films are far more daringly kinky and ambitious than anything in Far From Heaven.

Sirk is clearly an influence on Carol, Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. This novel, too, is worthy of resurrection – it’s a startlingly candid lesbian romance between Carol, an elegant married woman, and Therese, her younger paramour. Haynes’ knack for evoking the visual style is amply evident. One gorgeous example among many – leaving a cocktail bar, Carol allows her perfectly manicured, fur-cuffed hand to linger a bit too long on Therese’s shoulder.

And again – something is missing. There’s tremendous momentum in most of Sirk’s work, a wild, unharnessed energy that’s actually quite analogous to the tone of Highsmith’s prose.

But the look and feel of Carol is literally and figuratively damped down, the world enveloped in a greenish gray haze where broad daylight looks murky – you can see it in the film poster. (By contrast, even when Sirk evokes an autumnal palette, as in All That Heaven Allows, there’s something almost lurid about it.)

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 3.48.04 PM
This poster carries a pull quote from the New York Times, describing Haynes’ work as “exquisite.” I’d agree – but there are limitations to that kind of delicacy. Most problematic here is that the characters are robbed of a sense of agency. Both actors make their marks – Cate Blanchett (Carol), with her enigmatic half-smile and far-away gaze, and Rooney Mara (Therese) with her gamine, Audrey Hepburn directness. But their love affair shouldn’t feel like a lost cause from the get-go – and here, it does.

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