Todd Haynes "Carol" is at the top of the list for Anglo-American critics at Cannes but it is not a top runner for Francophiles. The biopic is artistically executed with soft filters and props from the 50's but many look like they were acquired for the movie from antique shops and do not have that fresh look that newly acquired possessions should really have. The narrative is a haunting one that touches on homophobia in the 1950s based on Patricia Highsmith's intriguing title, "The Price of Salt" (1952). 'Out' lesbians at the time were only known to each other and their private circles, and met in secret clubs.
Carol (Cate Blanchett) and her lover Therese (Rooney Mara) are both heterosexual women trapped in aimless or loveless relationships that do not inspire them. This lack of belonging and accountability is not about two women just having an intrepid affair for although they are surrounded by men throughout the film, their affinity lies with each other. This is a hard concept for many and witchhunts and claims of immorality are the results of not getting it. Leaving a man for a woman is an affront to how society has been calibrated. When Therese is asked if she is a lesbian, she adamantly denies it, so powerful is the taboo.
Cate Blanchett, producer of the film, gives one of her best performances to date. Carol is the kind of mythical creature who is clearly in a vulnerable position but does not want to put her feelings into words. Therese wants to ask her questions and eventually Carol lets her. Therese's inward intensity at the prospect of this relationship is comprised of an entourage of penetrating stares. Their relationship commands the film and is the backbone of the narrative arch that compels spectators to listen to their dialogue while off handedly taking note of the makeup, costumes, appliances, shop fronts, automobiles, and furnishings of the time.
Ultimately, Todd Haynes requires viewers to surrender to the love story. On the final days of the Cannes screenings, crowds swarmed to stand in block long queues with the high critical ratings, but it is not altogether clear that they were there to witness the silent rampages of homophobia that is part of the film's message or to watch two women in love that is still a voyeuristic thrill. There is also the time honored clever Weinstein & Co schematic involved in pushing a film like this at the box office and for awards shows. For Cannes, narratives about lesbians have been hugely successful such as Palme d'Or winner La Vie d'Adéle (2013) and Haynes is contending for the award this year.
Todd Haynes has put a lesbian relationship up front and in doing so watches to see if the two women in the relationship put it first too. They always have men to rely on and it is somewhat contrived that they are constantly being hit on so that they are (we are) absolutely sure of their choices. Therese notices other lesbians but in her upwardly mobile New Yorker wardrobe does not look like one of them. The elegant Fifth Avenue dressed Carol has had other lovers and one since she was a child (Abby -Sarah Paulson) that stands up for her as far as female bonding. But other than their affair, Carol and Therese have a hard time finding each other and making it stick. Their professional energies which involve retail buying,and doing photography for the "New York Times" seem like distractions. Their real job is each other. Therese gets an expensive camera from Carol and in turn gives her a Billy Holliday record. Materialism is a large part of this film. Will they eventually wind up sharing an uptown flat in Manhattan? How could they not?
Patricia Highsmith's novels have been put to film before. Matt Damon's Tom Ripley in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) is far from the outwardly gay character that Carol seems to be. Todd Haynes has decided to make a proper claim to Highsmith's character's sexuality and lifestyle. It seems to work better with lesbians who have discarded their male suitors than for gay serial murderers.
"Carol" should do well because of the star wattage of Blanchett and Mara who command every scene they are in. In the end we are left with a stylistic mis en scène furnished with all the appropriate items of the time and a love story that is made totally believable by the actors. This is the kind of film that dreams are made of and the love story enchants. Unlike their characters, Blanchett and Mara are not only make believe. At the Cannes photo shoot both actresses had their hands on Todd Haynes rear end. Cate Blanchett made it clear that she had many women friends, but no lovers, a question on many journalists' minds at Cannes.
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