HelenHighly Critiques the Film Carol and Compares it to the film Brooklyn
The movie Carol, a lesbian romantic drama that is based on the book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, is getting named Best Film of the Year by just about everyone, it seems, and making all the award short-lists. And Helen is Highly disappointed. Let me add up front that the film was costumed by Sandy Powell, art directed by Jesse Rosenthal, and filmed by Edward Lachman, who will all likely (and deservingly) receive awards for their work here. But in this review, I have issues with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.
Mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.
I saw Carol at the 53rd New York Film Festival, where just about every film was more interesting than this gigantic slice of Boring. After watching the film, I assumed most people would dislike it as much as I did, so I was shocked when I did a quick Google search and saw the Variety review pop up saying “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol, exquisitely drawn, deeply felt…” No way! (I usually like Justin Chang, but I disagree with him and nearly everyone else about this film.) My first order of business is to change Variety’s intro line: “High expectations don’t quite prepare you for”: the slow emptiness of this mundane, overly precious, pointlessly detailed movie.
Listen, I adore Cate Blanchett as much as anyone. And no one can say she is not gorgeous. At one point in the film – at a party, her estranged husband concedes to her that she is the most beautiful woman in the room. Well, that never changes. She is the most beautiful and the best dressed and best accessorized and best groomed person in every scene. So, let’s all agree to put Cate Blanchett’s face in the dictionary under the word Perfection, and then we can all go home and save ourselves two hours of lifeless artifice. And if Cate were selling lipstick, or stockings, or fur coats, I would buy them all. But I would not recommend this movie to anyone.
I’m happy for Blanchett that she got such a glamorous star vehicle in which to show off. But why is no one else stating the obvious – that this is essentially a vanity project for Cate Blanchett? Unfortunately however, in this movie, we cannot see Cate’s rich inner life through the heavy cover of makeup and fur.
Remember the final season’s opening episode on Mad Men, where Don Draper is trying desperately to find the ideal, alluring model to put in his fur coat ad?* Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett should get that job! She is precisely what Don was looking for – an impossibly beautiful fantasy of aspirational glamour and exquisite opulence. Women want to be her and men want to have her, exactly because she is so flawless and empty; you feel nothing for her or from her as a character – no complicated emotions to ruin the high-gloss facade. And honestly, Cate, you are better than this; you don’t need to advertise your quintessential (surface) beauty. That Don Draper gig, and this movie, are beneath you; you can act.
The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal.
This brings me to the lesbian theme of the story. Helen Highly objects to Haynes’ portrayal of Carol and her younger lover (played by Rooney Mara) as a Hollywood male fantasy of woman-on-woman sexuality. Due to Haynes’ decision to maintain the look-and-feel of a 1950s flick, the movie refrains from overtly explicit sex scenes, but still it has the tone of cheesy pin-up porn – made for men, and not about real-life women who have ambiguous thoughts and difficult feelings. Highsmith’s 1953 book, The Price of Salt, became a lesbian-love cult-novel, due largely to its being the first authentic expression of a lesbian relationship that did not have the punishing ending that was prescribed by 1950s morality. Highsmith was a lesbian herself (a fact she denied throughout most of her career), and this story is semi-autobiographical, telling the tale of when she was a shop girl who fell into a romantic obsession over an older married woman who was a customer at the store. But let’s stop there for a moment. (Well, there’s not much else to tell; the movie mostly repeats variations of the same scene.)
Part of Helen being Highly annoyed is that so many people are eager to say how this film is “important for women” – as if it were still the act of sexual bravery and social revelation it was in the 1950s. And that is simply not the case. Today, the storyline reads as old news and naively obvious. The book was ground-breaking and radical; the movie is strictly conventional and banal. And this is the fault of the screenplay and the direction, which do not capture the emotional intensity or poetic eroticism of the book. (Watch Dec. 19th’s Saturday Night Live and see their skit about how a male director is ruining an otherwise good 1950’s movie about two lesbians. Ha.)
The book meticulously detailed the inner lives of these two, passionate yet confused women; the film, instead, meticulously (and ploddingly) details a story that was only loosely referenced in the book — because Highsmith was interested in tortuous desire and fearful loneliness, not a who-gets-the-kid divorce case. In the movie that Nagy and Haynes made, the tale becomes a simplistic, self-righteous, politically-correct after-school-special. Haynes attempts, it seems, to depict the women’s emotions with an endless series of long, silent gazes. The film becomes tedious quickly, as we see the same posed, passive expressions played over and over – against a range of sumptuous backgrounds. And so it seems that Haynes cares more about his visual style than he does the psychology of his characters.
Todd Haynes is no Hitchcock.
Now, because of all the unwarranted hoopla about this movie, it becomes important to discuss Highsmith’s other books, several of which were made into highly successful movies, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train among them. Highsmith published The Price of Salt under another name and disowned the book for many years, not wanting to derail her career as a successful mystery writer. Other than this one-off erotic lesbian tale, Highsmith wrote thrillers. Margaret Talbot, at the New Yorker, recently wrote a fascinating article about the background of the movie, in which she explained: “In 1952, Coward-McCann published The Price of Salt. Harpers & Bros., which had released Strangers on a Train two years earlier, turned it down, perhaps because it wasn’t another thriller.” So, for all you devoted Highsmith fans, just be aware: this one is not like the others — not the book, and definitely not the film. By the way, The New Yorker article is very worth reading and includes many quotes from the book, which are strikingly different from the minimal, stilted language of the film.
And to my smart-yet-in-this-case-incorrect friend, and others, who like to say that Carol is comparable to the brilliant and classic Strangers on a Train, I say two things:
1) Haynes is no Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock and Highsmith shared an affection for frosty blondes (and perhaps Todd Haynes does as well). But Hitchcock was a master. He knew how to make an ice-queen come alive on the screen.
2) Carol is no thriller. Hitchcock also understood plot; he knew what was a compelling story and what was not. Carol is not.
So, Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes can wish she were Grace Kelly or Kim Novak all day long, but she’s not going to touch a hair of their blonde locks with this script and this director.
It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie!
The other night, taking a break from writing this review, I went to Joes’ Pub at the Public Theater to see a wacky Christmas cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, called Angels We Have Heard When High (HelenHighly was highly intrigued.)
To my surprise and delight, much of the comic element of the show was based on the movie Carol. It takes a drag-queen to understand what is wrong with this movie! Bond smartly comments at one point, “The Price of Salt was at least based on something real.” Bond scoffs at the notion that there is anything true or sexy in the film and hilariously explains that despite the director’s meticulous efforts to create 1950s verisimilitude, he neglects the important detail of Cate Blanchett’s fingernails.
Bond says that it’s clearly apparent that Carol has a gel manicure – something only recently invented and very different from the nail polish the character would have worn in her day. Ha! That is so true! (Gel “no-chip” polish and processing essentially bake the color onto the nails and have been a game-changer in the world of manicures. The color lasts for weeks instead of days and is a major 21st-century advancement, which would have been nothing but a sci-fi fantasy to any 1950s woman.) Bond goes on to insist that at least during the several-day-long road trip, where Carol is living out of a suitcase, she would have had a couple chips in her perfect nail color. But Haynes did not allow that, keeping Carol a phony character instead.
Bond also bemoans the film’s false portrayal of the “May-December romance” (which is important in the book). Mx Viv is all for older men or women getting it on with young, hot things, but alas she was once the May and is now the December part of that equation. And she knows what that feels like and looks like (and so does HelenHighly), and there is no way that “December” looks like Cate Blanchett’s perfection. Bond resents now having to live up to Todd Haynes’ unrealistic depiction of a December lover. Once again: Helen Highly agrees!
In Brooklyn, the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them.
While watching the screening of Carol at the New York Film Festival, I made very few notes in my book, because there was nothing interesting to write down (IMHO). But soon after, there was a screening of the film Brooklyn, another historically-accurate, sentimental love story that was adapted from an acclaimed book (screenplay by Nick Hornby). I made quite a few notes about that movie. Remarkably, the two films take place in the same year and in the same city (New York and its environs) and both generally deal with the problems of pulled-in-two-directions love and related family pressure. The big difference: I care about the characters in Brooklyn!
In the movie Brooklyn, the main character is Ellis Lacey (played with heart by Saoirse Ronan), and like Carol, she struggles with a love dilemma and is nearly torn apart by it. Both stories also include a theme about secrets and spies who reveal those secrets, plus the themes of betrayal and nasty gossip. Watching Ellis, I ached for her. Carol’s plight left me cold.
Both films have been critically applauded for their lush cinematography and vivid, vintage design. But in Brooklyn, the design supports the characters instead of glossing over them. Interestingly, in an interview after the screening, director John Crowley explained that he wanted the film to “seem artless,” and he did not cast the roles “for looks,” but rather for “inner truth.” And that inner truth is indeed expressed in the film, which rises above its sentimentality by letting the characters earn their emotions. Crowley brings the audience close and lets us follow the inner workings of the characters. Haynes maintains a cool distance throughout.
There is a scene in Brooklyn where Ellis takes her first trip to the beach at Coney Island, and when she comes out from behind her towel and reveals her “swim costume,” it is a glorious moment. I felt myself beaming for her. I wrote in my notes, “rapture!” And the feeling of rapture is exactly what was needed and missing from Carol. When Ellis’ sister dies, I was devastated. I felt her pain. For Carol, I could only yawn (and sneer at suffering that seemed so fake).
Todd Haynes, I know you are a skilled and well-regarded filmmaker (and thank you for the movie I’m Not There, where Cate Blanchett is put to much better use, btw), but Helen Highly suggests that you watch the movie Brooklyn and take a few notes.
* And just for fun, here’s that Mad Men scene with the fur. Listen to Don “direct” the performance. Don’t you think Cate’s Carol is made for this role?