Todd Haynes has spent the majority of his career directing films that call back to the golden age of actresses — his muses have included Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and a Barbie version of Karen Carpenter. Haynes provides primo roles for women at a time when few other filmmakers do. But does he really care all that much about the women he puts onscreen? I value Haynes as an artist, but his art isn’t revelatory or emotional; it signifies feelings rather than sharing them.
The multiple-Oscar-nominated Carol is yet another Haynes meditation on homosexuality in an era (the ’50s) that didn’t tolerate it. (He treated the topic literally in Far from Heaven, metaphorically in several other movies.) Carol (Blanchett) is a well-to-do woman in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Their differences are extremely irreconcilable: despite having a daughter with him, she’s just not that into him, or into his entire gender, for that matter. Carol has previously detained herself with “best friend” Abby (Sarah Paulson), and of late her gaze has fallen upon young Therese (Rooney Mara), toy-store shopgirl and aspiring photographer.
Therese’s artistic proclivities (including tickling the ivories with a bit of Billie Holiday) and dark, severe bangs may remind viewers of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose novel The Price of Salt served as the script’s basis, and who admitted that Therese was more or less her avatar. Too bad, then, that Therese’s portrayer isn’t up to the level on which Highsmith operated. Rooney Mara, I fear, is her generation’s Jennifer Connolly, a gothy but inexpressive actress deeply overrated by critics perhaps enamored of her bone structure. Therese is supposed to be a nervous neophyte, but casting this mild, emotionally null presence opposite Blanchett, who emotes ripely in the manner of classic Hollywood divas, is almost cruel. (Blanchett’s peak moment of golden-age noir efflorescence comes when she gets to point a gun and snarl “Where’s the tape, you son of a bitch?”)
Haynes hit his own peak of erotica in his feature debut, Poison, during its Genet-inspired prison sequence, and it’s been down a cold hill ever since. When Carol finally takes Therese to bed, we get oblique fragments of their lovemaking, and it’s as dry and po-faced as anything else in their relationship. Their love involves, as far as I can determine, being somber in close proximity; there are no shared jokes, no mutual interests. Therese is a proto-bohemian without the sullen attitude of one, and Blanchett nicely conveys Carol’s tickled attraction to her, but Mara doesn’t have the tools to do likewise. Therese’s big emotional moments amount to her staring off and sobbing while Mara is obviously thinking of something really sad. (By contrast, consider Kyle Chandler’s empathetic turn as a husband who could come off as a monster, but instead presents as a pained man sunk in incomprehension and insecurity.)
Yet maybe that makes Mara the ideal new muse for Todd Haynes: she signifies rather than feels, and so does he. Carol looks terrific, as all Haynes films do; working in Super 16mm, cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a master class in the seethe and texture of grain. (In a late moment when Therese and a co-worker are painting her apartment walls blue, the surface looks like the screen of a staticky TV.) But the score, by the usually superb Carter Burwell, sounds like unused music for a Godfrey Reggio travelogue — the tone is a bit too tastefully lachrymose. I’m all for Haynes making throwback dramas that great actresses like Blanchett or Julianne Moore can tear into, but I’d like to think the deluxe emoting they do is in service to anything besides Haynes’ deadpan appropriation of ancient styles and tropes. Tarantino, for instance, works this way but giggles in appreciation; Haynes rubs his chin and says “Interesting.”