It so happens that I saw Brooklyn one afternoon in December and saw Carol that same evening.
One is lovely, even sweet, and I enjoyed it. The other is brilliant, and it is best appreciated within a larger context.
One is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The other has (in my opinion) been snubbed.
This afternoon, students in my Media Theory and Criticism class will meet to discuss the Douglas Sirk film Written on the Wind and the Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven. Getting ready for class, I watched an interview with Haynes discussing how Sirk influenced Rainer Werner Fassbinder and how both of them influenced his own work.
It’s clear that Haynes has put his Ivy League education in semiotics to good use. Just as it is important to know a bit about Sirk and his films to understand Haynes, it is important to know a bit about the director’s other films and source material to fully appreciate Carol.
I have not read The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith adapted by Phyllis Nagy for this film, but I know about other movies based on her work (Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley). Carol works for me on every (elevated) level.
It is fitting, actually, that I saw by Brooklyn and Carol on the same day because both are set in the 1950s in the same region (mainly), evoke the time with what seems like authenticity (I wasn’t born yet), and make larger points about identity and transitions (compelling points).
But, the similarities end there.
Brooklyn tells a story of immigration and assimilation, a story about seeking a larger, more open life and does so with the classical style of Hollywood films from across the ages (and echoed again this season with Bridge of Spies and Spotlight – other examples of conventional storytelling operating at extremely high levels of accomplishment and two films I like very much).
Carol, on the other hand, is a story of illicit love that uses all of the formalistic (overtly constructed, obviously manipulated, even artificial) tools of the trade to tell a story of purposeful and painful contrasts.
Cate Blanchett plays a well-heeled housewife and mother (Carol) unhappily ensconced in the suburbs. She falls in love with a character played by Rooney Mara (Therese), a fledgling artist working behind a department store toy counter in Manhattan.
At first Carol is careful. She doesn’t act immediately on the attraction. The ensuing courtship is painful because of the pace, which is dictated by the stakes. If everything seems to be approaching a state of suspended animation, well, that makes absolute sense because of the implications of each choice and also, I think, serves to intensify the tension.
Haynes is telling a story that is as much about emotions that must be circumscribed until they can no longer be contained as it is about unfolding events. He is playing with the form and using it to show us something real and true yet so unconventional that it must be denied, and the formalism of the film reflects that outward denial of emotional truth in ways that may not generate mainstream understanding or acceptance of the film.
In that way, this is a fitting vehicle for Carol and for Therese because the smothering hothouse of the society surrounding them offers a stranglehold instead of an embrace while the style employed to capture the complexity of their experience may not be readily accessible to all viewers.
This is not a criticism of those viewers; it is a celebration of this film.