The world of Todd Haynes‘ “Carol” is one of whispered secrets and furtive glances, one in which the smallest of gestures can be huge. It is a world that could collapse into melodrama if it weren’t perfectly calibrated – but in the hands of Haynes and of actresses Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the exquisite restraint of the filmmaking and the acting made for a powerful experience for most of the audience at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday night.
The Weinstein Company release will have its official premiere in competition on Sunday.
Haynes, whose previous films ranged from “Safe” and “Far From Heaven” to “Velvet Goldmine” and “I’m Not There,” for which Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar, is a filmmaker who constantly adjusts his style to match his subject matter: cool and detached for “Safe,” stylized Douglas Sirk melodrama in “Far From Heaven” and a deliciously bewildering range of styles for his Bob Dylan fantasia “I’m Not There.”
“Carol,” an adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” is set in the early 1950s, when a relationship between women is enough to trigger a “morals clause” and force the title character (Blanchett) to lose custody of the daughter she shares with estranged husband played by Kyle Chandler.
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Depicting an era in which same-sex relationships were hidden (for an era in which they’re headed for a likely Supreme Court endorsement), Haynes keeps things quiet and elegant, but with an edge of tension that runs through the early scenes. Blanchett and Mara engage in what might almost be flirting, if flirtation were even an option in polite society.
Carol is bold and confident, while Mara’s character Therese is timid to a fault – as she says when things start to go badly, “I should have said no to you, but I never say no.”
Initially, we’re not even sure if Therese has any romantic interest in Carol. The movie starts as a finely-wrought examination of how much can be packed into the smallest glance and slightest gesture, with Blanchett and Mara clearly up to the task of conveying a lot by doing a little.
The movies are wildly different, but like Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre,” it’s a pleasure to sink into Haynes’ exquisitely crafted world, even if we can’t completely read the characters.
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Blanchett and Mara do finally turn up the heat in a night of sexual bliss that turns into a catastrophe when it turns out that Carol’s husband has hired a private detective to document it all. The two women are forced apart and Carol suffers through a variety of indignities (including psychotherapy to cure her), until a later meeting where the tables are turned and Carol, heartbreakingly, must almost beg a newly assertive Therese for another chance.
“Carol” is both a beautiful miniature and a majestic romance; it’s set 60 years in the past, but it’s for now. The shout of “Bravo!” that echoed through the balcony of the Salle Debussy on Saturday night seems about right for a bold and beautiful film.
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