This is going to be a slightly different kind of review. I want to look at Todd Haynes’ Carol not only as the pinnacle achievement of what Haynes has being doing in cinema throughout his career but as the pinnacle of cinema’s culmination into the present moment. I will abstractly nod towards this through describing Haynes’ Carol as an amalgam of four distinct auteurist styles. The film is an overwhelming work of art displaying the finest qualities of Robert Bresson, Wong Kar-Wai, Edward Yang, and Douglas Sirk, with the first and last largely influencing Hayne’s personal voice. With Carol, he has finally found the lightness of pure cinematic expression, a visual style which is deeply his own, spiritually connected to his past, yet maturely realized with a feeling of effortlessness. Carol is an exquisite film, a delicate masterpiece of modern cinema.
Like Robert Bresson, Haynes uses a number of close ups to express genuine human emotion and the spiritual voice underlying physical movements and attractions. Bresson was obsessed with hands, declaring that the hands gave closest guidance to expressions of the soul. A hand holding money, grabbing a persons shirt, opening a door, dancing in a mirror. Everything can be expressed simply through a close up of a hand. Some of the most striking shots of Carol are close-ups of hands. In perhaps the key scene of the film, where Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) meet for a drink in a hotel restaurant, Carol exits by slowly placing her right hand on Therese’s right shoulder, lingering for a split moment as Therese looks over. This shot is shown from two angles, once at the beginning of the film and once at the end. Not only is it visually powerful as an expression of genuine love, but this moment which is used as a refrain is narratively purposeful in bringing the film full circle. This moment is perhaps that silent meeting of attraction and love which propels Therese back into Carol’s arms. It’s worth noting than a mere moment after this genuine expression of love is a slap-dash hand to shoulder connection between Therese and the male in the scene. The contrast is striking, particularly since it is purely cinematic.
This is not the only scene, however, where hands or other body parts are shown in close ups. When Therese cries on the train, a striking close up of her trembling fingers conveys her vulnerability. In the restaurant on their first meeting, a brief accidental touch of hands followed by a brilliant glance of interest by Cate Blanchett helps to raise the stakes on this blooming relationship. Gestures like this would become slightly raised over time to build tension and inevitability in their romance. When they show affection and when they make love, Haynes uses close ups of lips, of eyes, of body parts. In all these events, the close up is an abstract human expression much more artfully powerful than the actual event being conveyed. Like the films of Robert Bresson, it taps into the interior of a human being, into their soul, rather then remaining on the surface.
Like Wong Kar-Wai, Haynes uses a number of pans and the blending of images to create a rather ethereal and elliptical sense of time. At times recalling the work of Christopher Doyle, Carol uses a number of reflections wherein the merging of colours and refractions of light are used to transcend an earthly rhythm of time. The film is almost entirely shot with a mobile camera, with slight and effortlessly slow movements almost always occurring. When Therese cries in the train, the camera pans slowly to the left, first revealing a reflection of her teary-eyed face in the window and then showing her exit a cab. There is, of course, a hidden cut here in order to have Therese both in the train and entering her home in what appears to be the same shot. In her grief and tears, she is completely lost in her own thoughts; her mind is devoid of the world around her, as is the passing of time. It’s a moment where she might state she was so distraught that the ride in the train and then cab were altogether unnoticed, just as we see her skip through time, a black hole of emptiness, to get back home. Scenes of her face in the cab with rain distorting her facial feature too show a beautiful sense of transience or ephemerality which is palpable in Kar-Wai’s films.
Like Edward Yang, or perhaps Andrei Tarkovsky, Haynes uses reflections to regularly show both a point of view of a character as well as what is behind them. Often times this leads to a two shot of the duel lead actresses, with the reflection being a part of one person’s experience and the natural mise-en-scene being a part of the others. In the aforementioned scene of Therese crying on the train, her reflection is seen in the window. Later, through a shop window, she’s seen drinking coffee, while a car’s reflection is present above her head, presumably it is what she is looking at, perhaps she longs in memory of her road trip with Carol. In the taxi scene which bookends the film, she is seen staring through the cab window, while reflections of the landscape are noticeable (this shot certainly recalls Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love). On several occasions, Haynes pans or tracks along car windows, delineating the interior and exterior, point of view and what is behind one’s point of view, and fragments, refractions, and abstractions of images. In Edward Yang’s YiYi, the key theme of the film is expressed in the boy’s inspired acts to photograph people’s backs. He does this in order to show them what they cannot see. Haynes uses reflections in a similar manner, to show the world not only the camera’s point of view, nor the particular characters, but to fully encompass the world in which Carol exists.
Like Douglas Sirk, Haynes’ film is full of charm and charisma. Elegance and simplicity are tantamount to emotional depth and resonance. The characters are so purely captured by the camera. Their gestures, such as the ‘hand touching shoulder’ mentioned above, are exquisitely conveyed: subtle yet reticent and palpable. The film speaks silently, softly, with a great power yearning from beneath its surface. Such great depth of character is captured in the film’s simplicity, its carefully scripted dialogue, and its measures to visually develop the story. Such qualities are akin to the films of Douglas Sirk, whose feature film All That Heaven Allows was remade by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven, an equally evocative and sensitive picture.
I don’t mean to conflate these directors in a manner of eschewing direct analysis of Haynes, nor do I wish to consider this film a derivative amalgam of former films and influences. Besides Sirk and Bresson, I have no evidence that Haynes has even seen the films, much less been influenced, by the directors mentioned in this piece. The purpose is to expose Haynes as a visual master who has concentrated some of the best qualities of cinematic filmmaking: from storytelling to performances to cinematography to music, mise-en-scene, and beyond. Carol is Haynes’ ode to cinema. It is the cinema as life. It is the cinema as craft. It is the cinema as supernatural. There is little that has existed before in cinema which does not exist in Hayne’s masterpiece. Carol is the culmination of cinematic art in the year 2015. It crossed borders, boundaries, and lengths of time to be realized by Haynes in the contemporary present. Carol is truly a film of the ages.
98/100 – Masterful.