Cannes 2015: Never has a forbidden love been as beautiful as in Todd Haynes’ “Carol”

It is the mainstream queer film of our decade, a proof that Cate Blanchett is the new Meryl Streep, and an incredible treat for the eyes: Todd Haynes had done it.

Todd Haynes’ decision to transfer Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt”, written in 1952, to the big screen seems like a plain, obvious choice. Luckily, however, the director has done nothing plain in his film. Even though the film looks like the logical continuation of “Far From Heaven” and “Mildred Pierce” because of the era depicted, its female viewpoint, the taste of melodrama and anticonformism, “Carol” exceeds both aforementioned films and becomes the most spiritual, underground work of Todd Haynes to-date: a delicate love story, which reaches greatness not only in its imagery but mainly because of its continuous, tοrturous ambiguity.

The plot of the film is as simple as complex it is in its development: in 1950s New York, the young, shy saleswoman (and aspiring photographer) Therese meets the quite older, married, upper class, seductive Carol and a love is born between them. A love so sincere that is diametrically opposite to the falsity of the social veneer that keeps this love hidden.

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The visual setting of the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. New York is a noisy, tough, dirty city, faithful to the style of film noir, with its magnificent sets and costumes for the Christmas season, the family celebration par excellence. Edward Lachman’s cinematography in 16mm, nostalgic in the brown and yellow hues of the past, stays away from the illuminated advertising of the 1950s – this story has indeed nothing in common with the 1950s as these were illustrated in the magazines of the time. Within this underemphasised setting, drenched in Carter Burwell’s tunes, Kate Blanchett’s presence as Carol, dressed in primary colours like red and blue, comes as a repeated explosion, an exotic bird that does her best to hide her inner melancholy .

The way in which Todd Haynes observes his heroines reflects their own barriers: he is looking at them through windows blurred by rain, through half-open doors, corridors, in distant shots, focusing on their skin, eyes, a tuft of hair, stealing passionate glances, as any person in love would do, a person in love who is not allowed any public or even private show of affection, until said person overcomes her inner resistance: the camera seems to reach where human touch cannot.

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False pretenses are abandoned only when, after having used streets and hotels as their home, experienced Carol and inexperienced Therese let themselves be carried away in a disarming love scene. Where everything is acceptable and desirable, every emotional variation and each secret can now manifest themselves with passion and tenderness between two brave and generous women (and actors), with a pervasive sense of motherly protection, no trace of provocation but without any barriers.
Within this very multilayered web of temperament, norm and love that Todd Haynes create, the two leading characters thrive. Rooney Mara, shy as a child, allows her penetrating gaze, a gaze that all of a sudden can see truth clearly, to repeatedly overcome every defence. Kate Blanchett unfolds her wide acting range à la manière de Meryl Streep: from the stylistic and expressive exaggeration of Gloria Swanson (whose “Sunset Blvd” performance on a television cannot be accidental), which is similar to the heroine’s fake everyday life performance, to her absolute emotional drain, her romantic passion, her dynamism, Blanchett’s offers us a performance that actually takes off after the film is over and all the pieces of the heroine’s puzzle have fallen into place.

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For a director who has always explored the limits of queer cinema, “Carol” is Todd Hayne’s mature peak. An incredibly beautiful, mainstream lesbian love story, a successful counterpoint to “Brokeback Mountain” of ten years ago, which takes into account not only the changes in cinema, but especially in the established way of dealing with “difference”. A female only – and therefore less carnal and more intellectual – deep romance, a multidimensional melodrama that does away with tragedy in favour of optimism, a political reference to what still remains unregistered and hidden and, above all, a love story that you feel you have shared and you would like to relive.

Read more of our Cannes 2015 reviews here.