Upon seeing Todd Haynes’s Carol for the first time, I couldn’t help but go head over heels for this immaculate creation for reasons that are all too obvious. Haynes’s magnificent command of mise-en-scène brings to mind that this is the director who successfully updated Douglas Sirk (and to a certain degree, Rainer Werner Fassbinder as well) for the contemporary moviegoers just 13 years ago. What about the gorgeous 16mm film photography? Edward Lachman, who also shot Haynes’s last two pictures, seems to have made a Faustian bargain to attain the level of technical sophistication demonstrated in the film’s arresting image. But, one hasn’t really talked about Carol at all without bringing up its obvious virtue: Cate Blanchette’s and Rooney Mara’s spellbinding performances. Some see the couple as a spirit marriage between Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn on screen; this is valid both in the look these actors evoke and in the intensity of their delivery. Getting up from my seat, I thought to myself: “I must write about this movie!”
However, my conviction in Carol‘s towering accomplishments was profoundly challenged with the second viewing. While I still admired all the things I previously had, it was far from the experience of falling in love with a movie. Leaving the theatre I was utterly shocked by how cold I was left by the film that had once filled me with enormous passion. Not surprisingly, a blog entry about Carol had to be postponed. I needed to see this film one more time to really arrive at any grounded conclusion.
I have managed to revisit Carol once more since then, this time streamed on my laptop. I’m afraid it did not redeem the film for me as I hoped it would. The significant difference in the format should be taken into consideration for sure. Nevertheless, I was not moved by this gorgeous picture, perhaps even more so than the second time. Every thing just fell flat. Haynes’s impeccable direction, Lachman’s astonishing cinematography, Sandy Powell’s thoughtful costume choices, none of these did their magic any more. Why this sudden, radical shift in my reaction to this film? It’s a curious question, and I deemed it worth ruminating on.
There is no denying that Haynes’s latest output demonstrates some of the most accomplished filmmaking in recent years. You would have to browse the web for quite a few minutes before you come across a lukewarm review of Carol, let alone a negative one. Even those who are relatively unimpressed by the movie agree that it does not put a foot wrong, at least on a technical level. Funnily enough, a common complaint to be found in some of the more skeptical reviews is that the film is way too “perfect” for them to love. I can sort of see what they are trying to get at, and I even partially share this gripe myself. And this is a very interesting contradiction: inability to love something we acknowledge to be “perfect.” After all, one way or another, don’t we all long for perfection?—a “perfect” haircut, a “perfect” dress, “perfect” sex, a “perfect” novel, etc.
Unlike Patricia Highsmith’s third-person novel, Haynes’s adaptation looks at this lesbian relationship largely from Therese’s (Rooney Mara) point of view. It is an impassioned trajectory of the heroine who, in the beginning, appears to be timid and pliant, but grows increasingly self-assured and self-determined as the film reaches its finale. The frequent references to Brief Encounter and the rampant homophobia that is so typical of the 50’s notwithstanding, this love perseveres. The catalyst for Therese’s inner growth is, of course, Carol (Catherine Blanchette). And in order for the audience to understand, and furthermore empathize with how Therese’s sexual awakening prompts her to become a strong woman who, perhaps for the first time in her life, makes a life-defining choice on her own, Therese’s passion for Carol should be shared with them. In other words, in order for us to go along with Therese’s journey, we have to fall in love with Carol too. Haynes and the two leading ladies repeatedly stated in interviews that one’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be a barrier to this as Carol is supposed to appeal to the universal experience of falling hard for someone.
It is a daring wager that Todd Haynes lays before us in Carol. No wonder he loaded his arsenal with a big gun like Blanchette. She is one of the few film actors we have now who could stand a chance to match the larger-than-life intensity of such huge figures as Lillian Gish, Michel Simon, Greta Garbo, John Wayne and Hara Setsuko. These actors are capable of turning any given mise-en-scène to an extraordinary level just by their mere presence. There is a scene from Carol in which Blanchette’s character comes over to Therese’s place for the first time. Doorbell rings while Therese is in the kitchen, and she goes to open the door; the camera is placed at the far end of the hallway leading up to the entrance. For the most part, this is a quite forgettable image until, of course, the big gun enters the frame. Just by standing still at the doorway, Blanchette animates the entire screen and stuns us with her sheer vivacity: like Garbo and K. Hepburn do in their own respective films.
What Haynes does throughout the film is daring us not to fall in love with this goddess, but sadly that’s exactly what happens. It may be that I was blown away by the veritable force of the narrative sweep the first time around. However, with each revisit it became apparent that admiration and love do not go hand in hand. A “perfect,” well-to-do lady inhabiting a “perfectly” designed world, what’s there not to love about her, right? Hell, even at her lowest moments, Carol’s outfits and makeups remain pristine. Yet, as one of the scientists in Tarkovsky’s Solaris acutely observes: “We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror.” That immaculately-recreated Sirkian melodrama-land registers not as our world, but their world; Carol is a gun, not a human. We can surely admire all this, but certainly cannot relate to it—therefore, we are unable to love it. Ultimately, Haynes’s lavish seduction scheme fails.
According to Žižek’s brand of Lacanian psychoanalysis, love is maintained not by reaching its perfect state, but by its imperfections. We love someone in spite of his/her many imperfections. A true seduction is to merely hint at the possibility of perfection, not perfectly capturing one’s imagination. The object cause of desire (object petit a) has to be there to sustain it all. And that is precisely where Carol lamentably falls short—it may keep us fascinated the first time, but the cause of desire disappears after that. It’s the condition of having to choose a set amount of candy that keeps your desire burning, not the abundance of sweets and fairylike shop interiors.