Monday, January 11, 2016

Carol: Women Under Glass

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol, directed by Todd Haynes.

For the first half of Carol it seems as if the director, Todd Haynes, is going to make it work. Haynes stepped into movies with one of the most startling curiosities of the eighties, a short called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story populated by Barbie and Ken dolls, but at feature length his movies always seem theoretical – and rigged – like a doctoral dissertation you can’t get behind because it scrambles any instinctual reading of the material. That’s especially true of the project he returns to every two or three pictures, where he tries to replicate glossy Hollywood melodramas of the forties and fifties but moves into the foreground the subversive qualities that (some say) directors like Douglas Sirk slipped into the margins of their movies. Since I can’t take Sirk’s movies seriously, Haynes’ takes on them probably wouldn’t interest me much anyway. But he was certainly an entertainer, and though he asked his audience to accept some stupefying plot points, God knows he didn’t try to pass theory off as drama. Haynes’ most highly regarded film, Far from Heaven (2002), defied common sense at every narrative turn. His plan was to set the movie in the suburban 1950s with a Jane Wyman-type heroine (played by Julianne Moore, whose performance is the movie’s only saving grace) and give her a husband who’s a closeted homosexual and a lover who’s an African-American gardener. It might have been an interesting proposition, but not if the gardener (Dennis Haysbert) talked like he’d just time-traveled back from the twenty-first century and certainly not with Dennis Quaid as the husband. Haynes needed an actor who read as straight but who could be convincing as a gay man, like Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye. (Or Taylor Kitsch in the second season of True Detective, who seemed to have based the early scenes in his performance on Brando in Huston’s movie.) Quaid is preposterously miscast – like, say, Michael Douglas as  Liberace in the TV movie Behind the Candelabra – so all you get is the idea of a straight man who’s secretly gay. And when Haynes throws in a butch little girl and an effeminate little boy as Moore and Quaid’s kids, the obvious reversal of sexual expectations becomes dopey and childish. It’s the by now familiar problem of drama that goes straight to the symbolic level before it’s been worked through on the narrative level. Far from Heaven flattered viewers by making them feel smart for getting what he was up to without engaging them in the storytelling.

In his 2011 TV miniseries Mildred Pierce Haynes went back to the James M. Cain source material that Michael Curtiz and the screenwriter Ranald McDougall (and a raft of uncredited collaborators, including William Faulkner and Albert Maltz) sensationalized in the hit 1945 movie that won Joan Crawford her Oscar (the Academy confusing Crawford’s brand of glamor-puss masochism for acting). Haynes’ notion and that of his co-writer, Jonathan Raymond, was presumably to highlight the feminist undercurrents in Cain’s fine novel about a woman’s struggle to live a meaningful and independent life after her marriage goes sour. Cain’s depiction of Mildred’s work life – she begins as a waitress and winds up running a successful bakery – is arresting and feels authentic, but nothing I saw in Haynes’ adaptation (I watched only the first two of the five episodes) evoked that authenticity except for a couple of supporting performances, Brian F. O’Byrne’s as Mildred’s first husband and Mare Winningham’s as her co-worker. The casting of Kate Winslet, a superb actress who was completely wrong for the part of Mildred, was a glaring case of Haynes’ inability to think through his ideas dramatically; he needed someone like Diane Lane or Laura Dern, who would have approached the part in different but equally plausible ways. Winslet tries to play Mildred the way she played the accused war criminal in The Reader, with a kind of quizzical discomfort, but what worked in The Reader was her amazing ability to leap from theory to character – to humanize the notion of a woman who really can’t tell the difference between a sense of duty and empathy, a woman who isn’t entirely incapable of compassion but is essentially a moral idiot. As Mildred Pierce, Winslet couldn’t manage to make a single scene persuasive.

But in Carol Haynes has material that’s inherently subversive and already has a dramatic arc. Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt (her second book, coming right after Strangers on a Train), in which a comfortable, elegant matron, whose marriage is on the rocks, falls into a romantic relationship with a shopgirl in her twenties and risks losing her child when her husband hires a detective to gather evidence of her deviant sex life. Highsmith based the character of Carol Aird, the older woman, on one of her own lovers, but she got gun-shy and published it under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, and given the incendiary sexual content of the material by early-fifties standards, who could blame her? The problem with the book is that it isn’t just about homoerotic repression; it’s an expression of that repression, which feels like a blanket in which the story and the characters are swathed. The writing is beautifully crafted and the narrative goes somewhere, but its cautiousness and Highsmith’s famous coolness of tone function in combination like no-trespassing signs. The movie solves that problem by making Carol’s conversations with her best friend and one-time lover Abby (Sarah Paulson) more explicit, and the relationship between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), even before they actually get to bed, more obviously erotic. And unlike Far from Heaven, the movie does so without stretching credibility: we believe that the characters would have talked and behaved this way six and a half decades ago.

Kyle Chandler in Carol.

The movie, lit by the indispensable Ed Lachman, has an opalescent period quality; a number of key moments are shot through glass (like rain-streaked car windows) or from across rooms to accentuate the clandestine nature of the central relationship. Visually it’s a luxuriant piece of work, with images you sink into. (Judy Becker is the production designer.) And the two actresses give fine, unusually textured performances. Blanchett may never have looked so glamorous as he does in Sandy Powell’s elegantly tailored fifties outfits, even as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and she has an aura of entitlement. It’s a real movie-star turn backed by the sort of rock-bound technique stage stars like Ina Claire and Ruth Chatterton brought to the movies in the thirties – technique that was honed on high comedy but could lend luster to melodrama, too. What makes Blanchett’s work here so fascinating is that she’s venturing into territory that the old-world movie actresses would never have been able to explore. There’s an implicit irony in her playing love scenes with another woman the way, under studio-era directors like William Wyler (who directed Chatterton in her best performance, opposite Walter Huston in Dodsworth) or Ernst Lubitsch (who directed Claire as the émigré Russian Grand Duchess in Ninotchka), they would have played love scenes with men. Blanchett brings a sensual awareness to her scenes with Mara that complicates her air of aristocratic assurance. And when her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) threatens to cut her off from seeing their little girl, Blanchett’s acting acquires another layer as Carol’s self-sufficiency is imperiled by her helplessness to affect the outcome of a legal battle that’s stacked against her.

Rooney Mara’s Therese falls head over heels for Carol (whom she serves in the department store during the Christmas rush), but she’s unsophisticated and inexperienced, and though she runs with an eager, slightly affected crowd of young people in Manhattan, eager and a little affected, they aren’t especially experimental, so when she finds herself mesmerized by an older woman she doesn’t have anyone she can talk to about it. (Carol, of course, can talk to Abby, who makes no bones about being a lesbian.) Besides, she’s being courted by a young man, Richard (Jake Lacy), who thinks of himself as practically her fiancé. Mara, who played the title role in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has a weird gift for playing women whose inability to conform to social expectations can make them jagged and difficult, but Therese is compliant on the surface; that’s why Richard can’t understand her whenever she pulls away from him. It’s a tricky role because unlike the stronger, more assured Carol, who feels comfortable in her own skin, Therese has a push-pull personality; she’s alternately tentative and fervent. These flickering undercurrents can be unsettling to watch, so it’s easy to underrate what Mara does with this part. But she holds the camera as powerfully as Blanchett does, only in another way. If we were to think in terms of the subjects of great nineteenth-century portraits (the painterliness of the visuals seems to invite the comparison), Blanchett is like one of the wealthy patrons who sat for Whistler while Mara is reminiscent of the mysterious waifs the Impressionists often depicted in bars and cafés, like the barmaid in Manet’s At the Bar of the Folies Bergère. Just think of their not merely meeting each other, but becoming romantically involved.

Lacy doesn’t make much of his few scenes, but Chandler imbues Harge Aird with so much wayward desire and fury that he makes the character, who is barely sketched in (both in the book and in the movie), fully three-dimensional. Carol is driving Harge to distraction; he adores her but feels she’s freezing him out. He isn’t mean-minded or vengeful by nature, but his narrow (masculine, heterosexual) frame of reference makes it impossible for him to comprehend why he can’t possess his wife, why she remains insulated and distant even though she makes it clear that she doesn’t dislike him. As Chandler plays this man, his sexual frustration tricks him into acting in ways that his essential decency finds repellent, which is a richer approach than the character than Highsmith seemed to have in mind. I love watching Chandler – not just in his big roles in Friday Night Lights and the Netflix series Bloodline, but in the smaller parts he lands in movies like this one and The Spectacular Now, where his work is comparable to that of classic studio-era character actors like Jack Carson and Sam Levene.

Why doesn’t Carol work all the way through? I’m not entirely sure, but it may have something to do with the material, which seems to trail off once Carol realizes that she and Therese, who are traveling across the country, are being dogged by Harge’s hired detective – perhaps because at that point the tension (if not the actual story) becomes more conventional and less interesting. And it may have something to do with Haynes’ tendency to hold back dramatically: the late scenes in particular acquire something of a museum quality. This has turned out to be the best holiday season for movies in several years, and though Carol has been a favorite with critics’ groups, I don’t think that, for all its admirable qualities, it’s as good as Spotlight, Brooklyn, 45 Years, The Big Short, The Lady in the Van, Ron Howard’s underappreciated In the Heart of the Sea, or the mournful, affecting final chapter of the Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay, Part 2. Still, for once I found myself rooting for Haynes to pull it off. And though I don’t think he does, there’s no disgrace in turning out a movie as beautiful to look at as this one, with acting of this caliber.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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