Stories like Carol seem a perfect fit for director Todd Haynes. The filmmaker whose credits include Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce complements this 1950s setting almost as naturally as the fateful silk gloves worn by Cate Blanchett’s protagonist. After all, it is those fortuitously lost garments that bring her into the orbit of Therese Belivet, a much younger woman and shop girl who instantly feels drawn to Carol Aird; and it is that wordless desire that shapes the entire rich tapestry of Haynes’ movie, which as told through Therese’s eyes becomes a sort of cinematic articulation for lust and love.
And yet, none of the talent involved considers this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel a specific kind of period piece. At least not in matters of the heart.
“I know for me personally, it felt less about the period and more about what Todd was referring to before about the gaze,” Blanchett said at a New York City press conference while referencing the ways in which the film internalized Therese’s glances at Carol. “If a cigarette was held in a certain way, and received by the camera in a certain way, it’s because it was being viewed through the prism of someone’s desire rather than the prism of the period.”
Similarly, Blanchett celebrates the universality of that love story presented here, even if it is especially informed by its setting and the constraints that places on these two women of different classes and backgrounds.
“I think when you experience a love story, whether it’s back in the 1400s in China or in 1952 in New York, it feels as if it’s this timeless connection. So, the period is an important impediment, a hurdle to be gotten over by the protagonists, but it came secondary.”
Rooney Mara shared the sentiment when she rejected that the film should be viewed as simply a lesbian love story.
“I think one of the great things about the film is that it’s not a political film,” Mara said. “It’s not a film with an agenda; we’re not preaching to the audience; so, people are allowed to just watch it for what it is, which is a love story between two humans.”
Indeed, both Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy valued a frequently ignored freedom inherent with exploring characters in an era without our modern points of reference or vocabulary.
Says Nagy, “Really, that was one of the things that I was intent on doing: to not overlay a contemporary psychology onto any of the characters. When you overlay any kind of psychology or overview, you’re judging those characters, immediately… When I started working with Todd on this, it was a pleasure to forget that we were living right now. I didn’t have to deal with any of the methods of communication that people might have had, or the attitudes, or the judgments that we all have to be very, very aware of what we’re doing. And this was about instinct. Love is instinct, not calculation. Although, the circumstances of their lives requires some calculation.”
For Haynes, a love story needed to be about conquering the subject, as opposed to the sought object of more plot-driven films.
“And through much of Carol that is the character of Therese, who did occupy a much less powerful position in the world than Carol, is much younger, more open, and is sort of experiencing this woman with a freshness that is different from Carol’s life and experience.”
Haynes also found a distinction between the 1950s of Carol and the one seen in Far From Heaven. It is perhaps what makes Carol his most visually evocative film yet with each frame meticulously composed on Super 16mm film.
“The research for Carol kept revealing this city was in a very early stage with the transition out of the war years. The early 1950s were something quite different from the Eisenhower post-war years that we usually attribute to that shiny, glossy decade. And I was quite interested and curious in how different this world looked from perhaps my film Far From Heaven. And we wanted to bring some of that sootiness and some of that sort of monochromatic color palate to the look of the film. So, the 16mm was one of the ways that we did that.”
Haynes also instructed his cast to view Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s more obscure 1956 film, Lovers and Lollipops. Engel and Orkin famously filmed their pictures in New York with natural light and unknown actors to create an authenticity of their era (and not a Hollywood fantasy). The manner with which Lori March carried herself in that film as Ann, a New York model and single mother living in ‘50s Manhattan, can indeed be caught in vestiges of Blanchett’s performance.
“[Lovers and Lollipops] was set in a place more relevant to our film. It had a woman at the center of the story, a single mother trying to ingratiate her daughter to a new boyfriend. And she was just a woman. She was not wealthy woman like Carol, but she was this woman with this tremendous poise, and this gait, and this manner of speech. And it was a kind of example of a femininity that we do just not see anymore. You might glimpse it in your grandmother. But it’s something that’s not produced anymore culturally, and yet it’s not something that you would see by actresses in Hollywood films from the period.”
That elegance informs the very contradiction of Carol from Highsmith’s own novel. As Blanchett attests, Carol is the most poised woman in any room, yet she is also living in her own private hell. Her affair with Therese is her first real attempt to start a life of her own and be true to herself with a divorce pending. Yet the film takes great liberties from Highsmith’s contemporary novel, because in the book it was only told through Therese’s eyes.
These sorts of liberties are clearly on Haynes and Nagy’s minds since Nagy began working on adapting this story years before its director came aboard—and also when Highsmith was still alive. Highsmith, who also famously wrote Strangers on a Train and created the popular character of Tom Ripley (of The Talented Mr. Ripley, amongst other novels), died in 1995. But before her passing, Nagy had already been discussing adapting the book The Price of Salt into what 20 years later would become the movie Carol.
“She didn’t like many of the film adaptations of her work, especially Strangers on a Train,” Nagy said. Upon hearing that, Blanchett immediately quipped, “Oh what does she know!” But after laughter died down, Nagy clearly had Highsmith’s opinions in mind.
“They trade murders in that book [Strangers on a Train] and in the film, of course they don’t. And it was one of the first arguments we had when I said, ‘Oh I love Strangers on a Train!’ She said, ‘Hmm, really?’ with disgust. But she liked aspects of the film…. So I hope she would find this entire enterprise extremely attractive. I think she would; I think we are, all of us, not betraying the intent and the tone of her work, which I think is really the only thing you can do to be reverent to a source material. Everything else is up for grabs.”