Earlier this year, in my review of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” specifically, and again in “Paper Towns,” I remarked about how a new trend in films was beginning to seriously bother me. That trend was the main character of the film, usually a male teen, remarking about how his story “wasn’t your typical romance” story or something along those lines. That ploy is such a cheap case of showing rather than telling, or pompously telling the audience something that we would’ve figured at had we watched the film from start to finish. Perhaps it’s only fitting to wrap up 2015’s moviegoing year with Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” and, again, point another device in films that’s becoming a cliche that I’m getting tired of, as well.
That cliche is the long, lingering shots of facial expressions set to pretty obvious orchestration music. It’s a device that’s purpose is to ostensibly avoid emotional manipulation and provide for simultaneous abstraction of internal thoughts whilst embellishing external reactions and expressions. Some films do it in a way that provokes a lot of thought and naturalism – see “Christmas, Again” or even “Creed” for a more mainstream example. “Carol,” a film that’s ultimately a fine work of lesbian cinema, especially by America’s standards, is a film that uses it in a way that disconnects from the humanity of the characters in a way that becomes noticeable over the film’s two hour runtime.
The film is set in the 1950’s and revolves around Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a woman in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and enduring a custody battle for her young daughter. One day, Carol looks to purchase a Christmas present for her daughter, and at the department store, she meets Therese Belivet (pronounced “ther-rezz,” played by Rooney Mara), a shopgirl who is working there in the meantime to fund her dreams of being a photographer. Carol winds up leaving her gloves on the counter after a brief and amiable conversation with Therese, assuring Therese that this isn’t the last time the two will meet.
Sure enough, it’s not, and the two wind up meeting again. And again. They meet enough to conjure up suspicious on behalf of Harge, who sees their friendship as one that’s quickly brewing into a very questionable relationship. We, the audience, see Carol and Therese for who they really are – two women, separated by several years in age, caught in precarious situations that are preventing them from the life they want to lead. Carol’s albatross is obviously the prolonged legal proceedings and Harge’s demanding and often drunken demeanor, while Therese’s is simply the angst of being young and without many opportunities of creativity in a world where expression is limited and money is tight. The two wind up leaning on one another for some semblance of order and stability and, in turn, produce a relationship that is both friendly and respectfully sexual.
“Carol” is a beautifully crafted and well-acted film; the sets and details of the 1950’s vehicles, costumes, and malt shops are some of the strongest period sets of the year, sure to snag an Oscar nomination come January. This is also a performance that rests on the strengths of Blanchett, one of the finest female actresses working today, and Mara, who proves that she can hold her own weight, yet again, with a character that isn’t so easily defined. Put in frame together, these two actresses, one a veteran and the other well on her way to becoming one, create terrific energy in nearly every scene.
“Carol,” however, ultimately suffers by comparison to “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the acclaimed French film that won the Palme d’Or a few years back. That was a film that was raw and real, built from the ground up on human emotions and awkward conversations about relationships and the state of ones feelings. Far too often does Todd Haynes’s film and Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay settle for abstraction of feelings and lack of character development by trying too hard to create visual poetry by way of Blanchett and Mara’s facial expressions, most of which looking uniformly similar throughout the course of the film.
When “Carol” really pops is during its climax, no pun intended, when the effects of Carol and Therese’s relationship begins to become unraveled. Also a really wonderful addition is Nagy’s look at how, in a relationship, often one person is incredibly affected by the events, while another is able to move on so easily and not look back. That subtle examination is also what sets “Carol” apart from an ordinary romance film, especially one as bleak as this.
Haynes and Nagy have crafted a gentle and fairly tame film as far as lesbian films go, which is totally fine; being graphic doesn’t mean better, but it often does add a rawer, more unadulterated angle to the film. “Carol,” however, plays it safe far too many times to be a fully commendable film; it lacks the kind of character development and real conversational depth it needs to be more than a momentary look into a star-crossed relationship.