Therese: (holding a camera) “A friend told me I should be more interested in humans.”
Carol: “And how’s that going?”
Todd Haynes’ “Carol” (2015) is an intoxicating love story. It’s swoon-worthy. It casts a spell over you – and you just get swept in the undertow. The fact that it takes place during Christmas makes it a very intelligent film to watch during this time of year. What’s so special to me is the fact that the director and the writer Phillys Nagy don’t make a thing of the characters’ sexuality – instead focusing on their attraction towards another. Why should we have to explain or feel ashamed for feeling love for someone? “The only thing you really know is you either are attracted or you’re not,” someone mentions. “It’s like physics.”
The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 romance novel “The Price of Salt.” She of course is the famous writer whose psychological thrillers have been adapted into films – including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The tome was published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” because her agent thought she’d be committing career suicide due to its content. Her publishing company rejected the manuscript. In 1990 the book was republished as “Carol” and this time around it had her name as the author. The anecdote is important because it was the only lesbian story in her entire body of work – and because it is the only one that ends up happily. That detail – a lesbian love affair that doesn’t end up tragically– was unprecedented in Sapphic literature. As a gay man – while watching the adaptation – I rejoice not only for the fact that the characters are not chagrined of their sexuality but also that we have a joyful resolution!
Set during the holiday season of 1952, Therese is a struggling photographer who makes ends meet by working the counter at a high-end department store in New York. She’s in a loveless relationship with Richard who wants to marry her and bring her to France with him. She locks eyes with Carol – a vision in a fur coat who is looking for a Christmas present for her daughter. “What did you want when you were her age?” she asks, and Therese is woozily taken aback. They start a friendship – meeting for lunch and Therese eventually visiting her home. “What a strange girl you are,” Carol comments. “Flung out of space.”
This is a difficult time in Carol’s life. Her marriage is falling apart and her husband – who has been suspicious of his wife’s suppressed sexuality – is threatening to take full custody of their child – “a morality clause.” She’s been living in a state of depression and resignation – until Therese’s fulminating entrance into her life. The women take a literal road trip to Utah – and symbolically it explores the ways they will choose to navigate their lives. Love may not solve all their problems, but it will help them withstand them.
Haynes creates an astonishing cinematic vision of 1950s America that becomes an encasement for these women trapped by societal conditions. There’s so much to indulge in while observing his choices. He captures the way a hand furtively touches a shoulder. He frames Carol and Therese at the edges of the frame. He creates a motif in which they’re photographed inside moving cars longingly looking through the glass at the outside world. Every aspect of the filmmaking underlines the subtext. The score by Carter Burwell haunts and swirls inside your head like booze. Edward Lachman’s cinematography has a beautiful – shimmery gauziness, and he tinges the scenes with a green glow reminding you of the way that Hitchcock used that color in “Vertigo” to represent that feeling of falling – of stumbling – in this case madly in love. Todd Haynes is one of the best directors working today – a true poet of the outcasts.
There’s such perfect casting in this. Cate Blanchett is alluring, enigmatic and seductive. Rooney Mara has never been better – showing all the restraint that her Therese requires. Kyle Chandler, as the husband, gives complexity to a character who could easily be dismissed as villainous.
Carol: “Dearest there are no accidents.”
Available to stream on Netflix and Tubi and to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy and Kyle Chandler
Bringing “Carol” to the Screen
Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy had always been a Highsmith fan. As a researcher at the New York Times Magazine in the late ’80s, she finally met her literary idol when Highsmith was commissioned to write a walking tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, and Nagy tagged along. The two struck up a friendship through letters and occasional visits — Highsmith would write to her from Switzerland, where she spent her final years. She even suggested Nagy make one of her books into a movie, a daunting proposition, because Highsmith loathed all adaptations of her work, including the 1951 Hitchcock classic “Strangers on a Train.” (She died in 1995, four years before the release of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” in which Blanchett co-stars and first discovered Highsmith.) Around 2000, a producer from Film4 had acquired the rights to “Carol,” and asked Nagy to work on an adaptation. The writer had a distinct take. “To me, Carol was very much like Grace Kelly in ‘Rear Window,’ ” she says. “There’s a sexuality beneath the cool.” She cranked out a first draft in 10 weeks, and spent the next decade working on roughly 10 revisions. “People came and went,” Nagy says. “Various directors were attached and unattached,” including Kenneth Branagh and John Maybury.
The rights eventually lapsed, and returned to the Highsmith estate. That’s when producer Karlsen at Number 9 Films decided to chase after them. The pursuit took her all the way to Zurich, where she had to arrange for an in-person meeting with publishing house Diogenes to make her case that she’d actually get the movie finished. “It’s not a coincidence that I’m a female producer,” Karlsen says. “I have three daughters, and that puts me in tune with the paucity of great female roles. It’s almost by osmosis that you’re drawn to them.” The “Carol” team underwent one more round of musical chairs before the cameras rolled. Blanchett was always interested in starring, and director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) boarded the project, and tried to lure Mara to play Therese, but she had just completed “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and passed. “I didn’t think I could play the part,” Mara says. “So I turned it down, which is insane to me now, because working with Cate has always been a dream.” Then Crowley had to bail due to scheduling, and producer Christine Vachon suggested Haynes, who was available. “I felt there was something exciting about the festering interiority of a person falling in love,” says the director, who shot the movie in 16mm (the look was inspired by the photography of Vivian Maier). Haynes and Blanchett were glad to be reunited, and Mia Wasikowska was cast as Therese, but she too had to drop out due to a conflict. Haynes went back to Mara, who agreed to take the part this time. With all the near misses, Nagy believes Haynes was always meant to direct “Carol.” “Happily, we saved the best for last,” she says. (variety.com)
Director Todd Haynes on “Carol”
“Honestly, I was not even familiar with [Patricia] Highsmith’s novel when the script came to me. But what I immediately responded to was that it was a film about sexuality and gay or lesbian themes—all of which I’d dealt with in earlier films, even within the Fifties—but this was a different take on those subjects, which is what I’d been looking for. The novel and Phyllis’s beautiful adaptation are such powerful love stories, and raised questions for me about how “the love story” in movies differs from the domestic dramas or melodramas I’ve looked at in the past. Plus, I was interested in the isolation of the desiring subject, who’s more in love, who’s more liable to be hurt by the object of desire—in this case, Rooney’s character, Therese. In the novel, you’re placed entirely in her point of view. The first draft I read of Phyllis’s script opened it up, giving us somewhat equal access to Carol’s side, where all the most dramatic material really resides—whereas Therese is just this young woman coming into focus, even to herself. There was something so strong about the entrapment you felt in the book of being stuck with Therese inside her own consciousness. I was really moved by that and wanted to bring some of that feeling back into the film. I also saw a direct line from the overproductive mental states of all the criminals in Highsmith’s other novels to the romantic imagination, in its constant state of hyperproduction, conjuring scenarios and outcomes, getting overwhelmed by all the signs it’s trying to read, trying to determine whether the person you love feels any need to be close to you. That craziness, that loneliness, that paranoia, but also the pleasure of reading everything—to the point of total distraction from everything else—I found to be such a great premise.” (filmcomment.com)
Haynes on Costume Designer Sandy Powell
“I first heard about ‘Carol’ through Sandy Powell. When she told me about it they weren’t actively looking for a director, so it wasn’t an official discussion, she was just telling me what was coming up for her. It was the first time I heard that there was this Patricia Highsmith lesbian novel, that Cate was attached to it and that [producer] Elizabeth Karlsen was doing it, so the whole thing sounded pretty enticing. Then it was probably a good six months before they came to me with it officially. But Sandy did discuss with Brian Selznick who would be the best person to do “Wonderstruck,” so Brian sent his own first adaptation of one his books to me…It’s just one of my great lucky strikes in my career. When I fist sought out Sandy, I knew her work and she’d designed “Orlando” and some Derek Jarman films, and we had some friends in common in the UK. And when she said yes [to “Velvet Goldmine”] I felt liked I’d just cast my lead in the film and just started jumping up and down on the bed in the hotel with hysterical glee. And I was so…right. [laughs] to feel that way. It was in many ways my lead. It was the thing that brought together all these disparate characters and their desires and fantasies. And we took the language of glam rock and applied it to a film in that we reinvented our own parallel universe for the world and our own theatrical allegory for 20th century design and style, and you see that in mashups of different costume eras that combine in different scenes of the movie for specific reasons. So the ’70s is a constant presence, but the ’70s is always incorporating the ’20s or the ’40s or the ’50s, as the ’70s did, but in a very overt and exuberant way in “Velvet Goldmine.” And in other films it’s been much more subdued and restrained and, for lack of a better word, naturalistic, approach like in ‘Carol.’” (indiewire.com)
About Author Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith (1921 – 1995) was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and grew up in New York. She was educated at the Julia Richmond High School in Manhattan and then at Columbia University, where she earned her B.A. in 1942. Her first novel, “Strangers on a Train” (1950), tells the story of a tennis player and a psychotic who meet on a train and agree to swap murders. The terrifying tale caught the attention of director Alfred Hitchcock, who, with Raymond Chandler, filmed it in 1951. Both the book and the resulting movie are considered to be classics of the crime genre. Highsmith’s subsequent novels, particularly five featuring the dashing forger/murderer Tom Ripley, have been vastly popular and critically acclaimed. In 1957 Highsmith won the coveted French Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere and in 1964 was awarded the Silver Dagger by the British Crime Writers Association. A reclusive person, Highsmith spent much of her life alone. She moved permanently to Europe in 1963 and spent her final years in an isolated house near Locarno on the Swiss-Italian border. Upon her death, Highsmith left three million dollars of her estate to Yaddo, the artist community in upstate New York. (penguinrandomhouse.com)
About Director Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes (Director) is an acclaimed American independent film director and screenwriter. Born in Los Angeles, Haynes grew up interested in the arts and attended Brown University, where he received his B.A. in arts and semiotics. After college, Haynes moved to New York City, where he made his controversial short film “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987), using Barbie dolls to portray the life and death of singer Karen Carpenter. Haynes made his directorial feature debut with the provocative 1991 film, “Poison,” which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, spearheading what would become known as the New Queer Cinema. In 1995, Haynes’s second feature film, “Safe,” starred Julianne Moore as a Los Angeles housewife who becomes environmentally ill. The film would be voted, by decade’s end, the best film of the ’90s by the Village Voice’s Critic Poll. Haynes’s next film, Velvet “Goldmine,” an homage to the glam rock era of the early ’70s, premiered in Official Selection at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Prize. Haynes’s next film, “Far from Heaven” (2002), inspired by the ’50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, also starring Julianne Moore, earned both critical and mainstream success, receiving four Academy Award® nominations, including one for Haynes’ original screenplay. Haynes won several other awards for this film, including the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director. His 2007 film, “I’m Not There,” imagined the life and work of Bob Dylan through the guise of seven fictional characters, and once again won him critical acclaim, especially for the cross-gender casting of Cate Blanchett, who received the Academy Award® nomination and Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress. In 2011, Haynes directed and co-wrote “Mildred Pierce,” a five-hour miniseries starring Kate Winslet, which garnered 21 Emmy® nominations, winning five of them, in addition to three Golden Globe Awards. He next made 2015’s “Carol,” based on Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel “The Price of Salt.” Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Carol received much critical acclaim and many accolades, including six Academy Award® nominations, five Golden Globe Award nominations and nine BAFTA Award nominations. It has also been voted the #1 LGBT Film of All Time by BFI. Haynes’s recent “Wonderstruck,” from the book by Brian Selznick (and adapted for the screen by the author), garnered nominations and acclaim across multiple critics associations and film organizations, including a nomination for Haynes for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Haynes’ inventive and singular telling of two children’s search for connection across time was his fourth collaboration with Julianne Moore. (focusfeatures.com) His most recent film was “Dark Waters” which was released in 2019.