‘Carol’ movie review
Erin McAuliffe | Wednesday, January 27, 2016
“No film maker has ever successfully brought the audience inside the mind or central nervous system of a character — something that even bad novelists are able to accomplish as a matter of routine,” Tom Wolfe stated in his 1973 anthology “The New Journalism.”
This quote mulled in my mind as I watched the richly blanched color schemes of “Carol” play out in fashion and setting on a screen at Cincinnati’s Esquire theatre — an establishment pleasantly cloaked in nostalgia.
The early 1950s setting onscreen (filmed, fittingly, in Cincinnati) and my tangibly passé surroundings brought me back to the basement of Henry Pordes Used Books in London, where I first picked up Wolfe’s work. I devoured his words in a state of heightened romanticism, facilitated by the enticingly musty smell of yellowed pages and ripe ink that wafted around me in the bookstore’s cellar.
“The makers of such movies usually run up the flags of defeat by finally having someone, via voice-over or on screen, recite great chunks of the novel itself, as if in the hope that this will recapture the power of the goddamned book,” Wolfe continued. “The power, unfortunately for them, is completely wrapped up in the unique physiological relationship between written language and memory.”
However, as I sat in my antiquated red velvet seat, my mind was both surrounded by words back in the in the bookstore memory and enticingly entwined and invested in an onscreen relationship facilitated by everything but words.
“Carol” is a movie rooted in movement: A faint shoulder brush is mused over in the recipient’s mind, perhaps interpreted as closer to a caress; a car is driven off in ambivalence while one watches in static longing; a road trip progresses the plot toward climax. “Carol” is a movie you watch over a movie you hear.
This is where a foggy glass, quickly gathering condensation through hot breaths, blurs Wolfe’s statement on point of view in films.
“Carol” is not a film entrenched in dialogue — and rightly so. Set in 1952, the story revolves not only around the love affairs of a woman whose divorce papers have yet to be drawn, they revolve around the love affairs of this woman with another woman.
To center the still-married mom as the plot’s focus seems fitting; however, “Carol” is posed through the point of view of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), the timid counterpart to the self-assured Carol (Cate Blanchett) who channels Margot Tenenbaum as a striking vision in fur with blonde-hair and a nervous smoking habit. Carol’s status is evoked through her stature, restaurant orders and gift giving — she’s regal, stately, elegant.
Their love affair proceeds in a manner akin to the train set Therese sells Carol in their first interaction: a closed circuit loop that incurs stops and additional baggage throughout the journey. Carol and Therese are train cars — men and 1950s society (that is the patriarchy) the tracks — ultimately their destinations are as certain as the next stop. To deviate is to derail.
Their relationship initially exists in strain as eyelids flitter and fingers nervously trace martini glasses. The dialogue remains scattered at best, warranting some discrepancies when Therese declares to her boyfriend that Carol is the only person she can truly talk to — ironically, due to the time’s suppressing social norms, Carol is the only person she truly cannot be seen talking to.
However strained the conversations come off, the point of view warrants intent in viewing. As the American dream has long prompted society to buttress the underdog, the viewer is vested in Therese’s outcome: Carol will get what she wants — the story lies in if that “what” is Therese. Director Todd Haynes utilizes the flux aspect of the plot to modulate and elicit satisfaction and torment in the audience as they watch the romance progress.
“Carol” is the first film Haynes has directed that he did not write himself. The screenplay is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” which she published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. (Notably, she published “Strangers on a Train” in 1950, and Hitchcock directed the film adaptation in 1951.)
As noted, “Carol” is a quiet movie, and quiet can prove disquieting. In contrast, the climax of the film comes in sound: the screen black as the pair finally succumbs to their desires.
The film allows the viewer to interpret what Carol and Therese are feeling through their expressions and actions, however, Carol painfully calls out the disconnect a mind undefined can cause when she demands Therese to tell her what she’s thinking as they drive along in crippling silence.
Therese fumbles with words and notes the selfish aspect in her spontaneously affirmative decisions. The conversation drew similarities between criminal and amorous minds: Both are constantly and obsessively preoccupied, both are irrational, and both are dangerous and occasionally armed — or at least disarming.
I would be remiss if not to elaborate on the supreme visual appeal of the film, shot on Super 16 mm. film stock. Ed Lockeman, the film’s director of photography, won the prestigious Golden Frog for his work.
Perhaps it was the influence of the camera consistently in Therese’s hands throughout the film that had me feeling as if I was strolling through a photography gallery at a predetermined pace. The work in the film was influenced by Saul Leiter, a New York-based photographer in the 1940s and 50s who shot in color and usually through glass to stress “the specificity of space and time.”
Remarkably, “Carol” proves Wolfe’s theory on point of view in films moot: The film’s ability to tackle the amorous mind through visuals not expressed in statements elevates it beyond words.