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Secret Lives

Who is the heroine of Todd Haynes’s “Carol”? There are two candidates. One is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a wife and mother whom we first espy in a mink coat, and who never really sheds that touch of caressable luxury. The second is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who is only just a woman; in the 1952 novel from which the film derives, Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” Therese—pronounced the French way, bien sûr—is nineteen. Mara’s poise may add a few years, but, nevertheless, a précis might suggest a disturbing tale of maturity preying on youth. Yet that is not what emanates from “Carol.” It feels more like a meeting, or a conflagration, of equals. “Take me to bed,” one says to the other, and the line is both a yielding and a command.

The time is the nineteen-fifties, perhaps the last epoch when, as a moviegoer, you could still believe that some enchanted evening you would see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow know. The sighting takes place some disenchanted winter day, in Frankenberg’s, a department store in Manhattan, when Therese, a temporary salesgirl in a Santa hat, serves Carol at the peak of the Christmas rush. Carol leaves her gloves on the counter—a detail not found in Highsmith but cleverly stitched on by Haynes and his excellent screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, who make us wonder, at once, whether Carol is being cunning or forgetful. Either way, she gets results. Therese makes contact; Carol invites her out to lunch, and then to the Aird family home, in New Jersey. Before we know it—almost before they know it—the two women embark on a road trip. Carol’s smooth gray Packard glides along like a boat, as if roads were rivers, and the open country offers space, as New York could not, for the free play of forbidden love. It’s possible that Carol and Therese might pause at an intersection to let another car, bearing Humbert and Lolita, sweep past.

The marriage of true minds, of course, demands impediment. Why should Haynes return to the patch of history that he visited in “Far from Heaven” (2002)? Because the period guarantees not only high-grade romantic trappings but also the basic thwarting without which romance cannot flower into drama. If Haynes had updated “The Price of Salt” to the present, our response would have been: big deal. Trade your straight marriage for a same-sex relationship, these days, and you will be hailed for your emotional honesty, whereas Highsmith, steeped in crime fiction, needed the creak of danger and the hiss of social disdain. The film is at its best when it honors that craving for trouble—when Therese, idly picking through Carol’s suitcase and fingering the fabric of the clothes inside, discovers a gun. (Carol fears being trailed.) For an instant, the lovers might be thieves, fleeing a heist or a suspicious death.

But what, in fact, have they left behind? Well, Therese is abandoning Richard (Jake Lacy), her tepid boyfriend, while Carol is faced with a graver loss. She and her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler)—somehow, a whole bad marriage is contained in the monosyllabic thud of his name—are already getting divorced as the movie begins, and, once he gathers evidence of what is regarded as his wife’s immoral conduct, he gets custody of their daughter, Rindy (played by Kennedy and Sadie Heim). Here the film stumbles, since we had little sense of Rindy in the first place, and Carol’s maternal agony, such as it is, does not endure. Her coolness, measured out in Blanchett’s every gesture, frosts over with a hint of cruelty. That, I guess, is true to Highsmith, who has scant interest in children or in the panoply of domestic joys, which to her are barely joys at all.

Where “Carol” does part company with the novel is in the testimony of the senses. Highsmith soaks her prose in a disgust worthy of Graham Greene, starting with an account of lunch at the Frankenberg’s cafeteria (“a grayish slice of roast beef with a ball of mashed potatoes covered with brown gravy”) and scarcely letting up. Haynes, it is fair to say, does not do gravy. He does beauty, and a dread of the unbeautiful sustains his film. Carol tells Harge that, if they go to court, “it gets ugly. We’re not ugly people.” When she first appears in the store, you see at a glance that her hat, her soft scarf, and her nail polish form a chord of coral red, and you realize that a symphonic surge of loveliness is heading your way. So why fight it? Blanchett cocks her cigarette at the perfect angle, pearling our view of her in a faint mist, and the mink coat alone is enough to make animal-rights activists purchase a nice set of steel traps and head for the woods. Highsmith describes a “mob” at the mouth of a subway, “sucked gradually and inevitably down the stairs, like bits of floating waste down a drain,” but the only drain we see onscreen is an iron sewer grate, as delicate as the rood screen of a church, that serves as a backdrop to the opening credits. Even the habitations of trash can be adorned.

There can be something ruthless in this hunt for style. In order for “Carol” to stay easy on the eye, the director must banish anything that feels maladroit or tough. The sex could have been feral, a chance to snap the decorum that rules elsewhere, instead of which the bedroom looks as well behaved as a cocktail lounge. And where, pray, is the social mismatch? If Therese were some thrifty guy, toiling in a garage, you could bet that his fling with a rich and jobless dame would be taut with unease; think of Montgomery Clift, in “A Place in the Sun” (1951), shifting from the wrong to the right side of the tracks and finding Elizabeth Taylor. As two gorgeous people, they felt both fused and doomed, while Carol and Therese simply click, and to hell with class. That said, the film is a casting coup, with Blanchett’s inherent languor—plus that low drawl of hers, a breath away from boredom—played off against the perter intelligence of Mara, whose manner, as always, is caught between the alien and the avian. (“What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space,” Carol says to Therese.) Mara pecks at the world, testing it out before taking it on, and, if Haynes can’t resist adding winged liner to the corners of her eyes, thus re-creating the young Audrey Hepburn, I don’t blame him.

Like Thelma and Louise, our heroines are the story of the film. Aside from Chandler’s baffled Harge, and a typically strong and witty performance from Sarah Paulson, as Carol’s gay best friend, almost everything else fades from memory, including sequences with lawyers and a meagre subplot about Therese’s ambitions as a photographer. Yet Carol and Therese are enough. The final scene between them—the final gaze—carries extraordinary weight and wields a delicious shock. We have spent the past two hours gasping on cue at the outfits and the jewelry, and asking why the distributors couldn’t go the extra mile, show the film in AromaRama (first used in 1959), and pump the theatre full of Arpège and Femme de Rochas. In short, we suspected that “Carol,” like “Far from Heaven,” was holding its vision of the past in quotation marks, too chilled by cleverness to bother with our hearts. And guess what? It turns out that, all along, Todd Haynes was in the mood for love.

Source: The New Yorker, November 23, 2015 issue

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