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If you've read anything of Todd Haynes' Carol before settling in to enjoy its immaculate take on the 1950s "women's picture", and this includes Patricia Highsmith's 'The Price of Salt' on which it is based, you will recognise that its opening scene offers up one exceptionally pregnant moment.
In a swanky New York club, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is finishing a drink with Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). They are interrupted when the younger woman is recognised by an old colleague. Glances are exchanged. Shoulders are brushed. Carol politely takes her leave. By the time Therese has cemented her plans for the remainder of the evening, nothing remains of Carol but a lingering perfumed regret.
Haynes knows full well that this indefinable regret is intoxicating. He knows the power of its mystique. He also understands how to delve deeply into that regret to begin to define it. How to feel out its borders and test the outside pressures keeping it in place. He knows how to search for the fragile source of that regret and how to capture the instant when two souls, staring through windowed eyes, meet and understand that they want to understand each other. He knows that, even to this day, many of the people around them, in the heaving mass of conformity we've labeled "society", will work against them as they attempt this connection. And he knows that the desire for connection makes the weakest of us stronger.
By the time we return to that moment, knowing Blanchett's Carol, knowing Mara's Therese, knowing the invisible, impenetrable barriers between them, it devastates. It is a whispered cry, muffled under layers of social propriety, heartache, entrapment, respectability, yearning and submission. It is almost unbearable. It is a harrowing capitulation, left hanging, desperate for resolution... But we are Haynes' playthings and he works so deeply within his social and cinematic and narrative constructs the he could never be completely forthcoming. In Carol's world, nothing can ever be tidy. It can only appear to be.
Following on from this, Carol, as a cinematic interrogation of the place of women in our recent past, is immaculate. Its perfect framing, like the perfectly affected bravado of Blanchett, matches the 1950s sensibility without blemish. Its surface detail, though not as luridly coloured as Haynes' direct homage to Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, still recalls Sirk's heavily-loaded mise en scène. Windows, rain and claustrophobic door frames dominate the frame, cutting Carol and Therese off from the world around them and, more often than not, from each other. Their existence, separately as women and jointly as a tentative couple, is delineated by glass, reinforcing their roles as objects to be trapped and admired.
Below the surface though, Carol's real steel presents itself. Haynes' treatment of Highsmith's semi-autobiographical novel, via Phyllis Nagy's sparse but perceptive screenplay, enforces the genre's aesthetics but not its social mores. Where Sirk's critique of society's limiting expectations was necessarily bound up by what he could sneak into the studio production, Haynes' is more pointed. His characters are constrained by the society in which they live but, as director, he is not and his choice of focus, his locus of control and the palpable frustration of nearly all the women onscreen allows the film to transcend its genre more fully. That is to say Carol is a film with a contemporary referentiality in its treatment of the 1950s but one that never betrays its period. Haynes simply and frankly strips the "women's picture" of its now defunct coding.
Where once Carol's desperate struggles to shake off the shackles of her marriage (even at the risk of losing her daughter) would inevitably have been read as a condemnation of a woman who doesn't understand that she has it all, now she can stand with the complex nobility of spirit originally put about by Highsmith. As Carol, Blanchett's fractured strength steps the line between shell-shocked desperation and near-vampish sensuality, but with an uncertainty compelling enough to dispel the predatory air that necessarily (or, rather, unnecessarily) accompanies any overt investigation of female sexuality.
It is Blanchett's masterfully masked soul-searching in Carol's aggressive flirtation that makes her budding relationship with Therese so emotionally intoxicating. The barriers between the two women - Carol's social standing, Therese's doe-eyedness, their age differences, the law, the partners and ex-partners (Kyle Chandler's entitled performance as the soon-to-be-ex-husband and Sarah Paulson's former flame are both magnificent), the daughter, the parents-in-law, the random parade of somehow-sinister single men - all enforce restraint. Blanchett is the embodiment of a woman who is desperately aware that something isn't right but who cannot find air enough to explore cause of her displacement. So, she gives in to all the restraining pressures. Or tries to.
This heartbreaking control holds Carol and Therese's love story back from becoming the sprawling melodrama that would have spilled forth in any other film. Carol is the inverse of melodrama. Its heaving emotions are kept at bay in anticipation of a payoff that threatens never to arrive, crushed by a world unaware anything but powerful white men. Yet, because Carol's course is never questioned by the film, the blame for everything holding Therese from Carol (and Carol from Therese) is external, or internalised.
Despite our desire to see their love flourish, we are put in the agonising position of rationalising why it cannot be. Our romantic desires are set at odds to our cold understanding of how the world works (or worked - such is the comforting distance of a period film - this wouldn't happen now we'd like to tell ourselves) and we resign ourselves to disappointment.
Haynes orchestrates this shared emotional discord with Wagnerian precision. Carol is a crescendo of caged-in passion, constantly swelling but never given release. Our hopes tantalise and subside. They tease with anticipation.
And we return to that moment...
And we see the world of damped sexuality and almost-requited love buried beneath those brushing fingertips... Feel it in that reassuring squeeze of the shoulder... Welling behind those eyelids that close for a fraction too long... And then, in one exceptionally scored glance, we see, perhaps, there is hope for us after all. Haynes delivers cinema as emotional epiphany.