There’s rarely anything out there that feels as deeply as Carol. Todd Haynes’ achingly sublime, artful evocation of love is a rarefied, nearly-extinct breed of cinema that breathes life into the classically refined and restrained form of filmmaking that’s either typically underrated or simply hard to come by these days. For Carol serves as an invitation to ignore all the noise, fury and all the excessive fuckery that surrounds modern day cinema – the meaningless CGI blockbusters, churning obscene, unholy bucks, and the unsavoury distractions and cheapskate shocks of today’s miasma of movie sensationalism. This is a film that gorgeously soaks in unspoken affections, luxuriates in human emotions and pleads a kind of intelligent, mature film-going experience without having to resort to exploitation (I’m looking at you, Gaspar Noé). That perhaps to merely watch, listen and above all, feel something profound is enough to precipitate momentary human transcendence in this all-too-brief life.
This depth of feeling – teasingly, exquisitely summoned through longing glances and furtive touches that anticipate clandestine affairs and whisphery declarations of endearment – is the supreme agenda here. Haynes assuages us that the most heartfelt incidence of love isn’t one that’s explained nor articulated in words. And so this influences Carol‘s film grammar, portraying a socially forbidden yet incandescent romance between two women, one’s a perfectly-coutured suburban housewife and the other’s a department-store ingénue. This is one of those extraordinarily subtle films out there where the cinematography and direction meld beautifully together, breathing as much meaning as its storyline through a sensitive control of the frame and mise-en-scène. Through its lustrous lens, characters are initially framed behind structures, may they be desks, counters, rain-soaked windows or a sea of moving vehicles, suggesting the interior drama beneath glassy surfaces. Until we finally break through facades, as Haynes not so much situates as dedicates his camera to caress the inner lives of these women, rounding up his two protagonists in an enclosed space of a dining booth. Whether these two creatures are gay, lesbian, repressed or whatever, nothing else matters in this little space but the beautiful, shared intimacy between two people suffocated by their own separates lives on the outside world.
The exquisite electricity in the air that Blanchett and Mara so stunningly capture when they look at each other across the room is the stuff of cinematic magic that no amount of screenplay, melodrama, production values or any goddamn computer-generated wizardry can ever dare to accomplish.
Some have already distinguished this as a lesbian Brokeback Mountain, but to claim as such undermines the real power of Carol. As Patricia Highsmith’s 1950s source material The Price of Salt was written in a time when society’s blinkered mind wasn’t open enough to same-sex coupling, Carol arrives at an era when the representation of female bonding in cinema is still far and few in between. Sure, Blue is the Warmest Colour broke a lot of grounds when it came out in 2013, but Haynes drama feels like this should have been the Palme d’Or-winning, society-shaking, once-in-a-lifetime kind of masterpiece that addresses a lot of stifling social prejudices whilst remaining alluringly, intoxicatingly hand-crafted like a Botticelli.
One moment Cate Blanchett wafts around in glamour-puss fur coats worth more than your mortgage like in a Lancôme commercial, and then the next heaves an air of existential crisis through a perfectly-lit cigarette or an unfurling of a silken scarf. Rooney Mara does her exceptional best not to be overshadowed by La Blanchett with a pre-nouvelle vague hairdo, naïve and waif-like in the first half, then utterly, thoroughly heart-breaking in the latter, making a performance soar without you realising it. It’s this careful balance of immaculately coifed style and attention to period detail with aching emotional depth (think Brief Encounter levels of ache) that lends Carol its timeless elegance and mastery of execution.
And like the great Ingmar Bergman who mastered the art of mining profundity in actors’ visages, Carol is a great cinema of faces, with Haynes mining the cosmic and quotidian in Blanchett and Mara’s exceptional facial abilities, exposing a wealth of complex emotions and conflict of desires in the merest of looks, the subtlest of movements and most nuanced of body language. ‘Love’ as an auditory word need not to be uttered for us to comprehend the secret affection and the gravitational pull between these anguished women, it’s all there in Haynes’ visual direction, in Blanchett and Mara’s faces – that exquisite electricity in the air that these two actresses so stunningly capture when they look at each other across the room that no amount of screenplay, melodrama, production values or any goddamn computer-generated wizardry ever dare to accomplish. That final scene, a moment of daring, soul-stirring triumph, is a testament to a kind of wordless cinema that speaks volumes of the possibilities of humanity and the ultimate understanding that no happiness is achieved without sacrifice, no beauty is attained without acceptance of imperfections, and that no love exists without the act of negotiation.