Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: "Carol" is About as Perfect as Movies Get

Scene from Carol
Love. At its core, almost every fiction narrative film has been in some capacity about the subject of love. It could be the explicit love between two subjects. It could be for the love of power. Whatever it may be, love remains just as vital to cinema after a century despite the emotions being the same thing in a different wardrobe. So how exactly do you improve on love in ways that The Lady Eve or Titanic hasn't covered? While thousands of films have tried, none have come close to the sublime new film from director Todd Haynes called Carol. While there's not much of a gimmick (two women fall in love), it's an example of love at its core; expressed with visual beauty and narrative excellence the likes of which haven't been seen in American films for quite some time. Carol may not have the most exciting story, but it has the purest depiction of what love is all about.

The film opens subversively: pulling up from a New York city street towards a fancy restaurant, where we meet a man standing by a bar ordering a drink. Despite having the first noteworthy piece of dialogue, he is insignificant to the story at hand. It's the two women that he is looking at: Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), who are having a then-unknown conversation. What proceeds is key to this moment, as the film slowly evolves from looking at its characters through a traditional gaze to something more passionate and pure. Therese is seen in her 1950's wardrobe through windows, often framed in a matter that isolates her from the very discussions she has with her male counterpoints. From the beginning, Haynes' camera insists on depicting Therese as disinterested in people - only connecting with Carol after a transaction at her department store job goes wrong.

It's a film about forbidden love that never feels the need to emphasize it. Instead, Carter Burwell's phenomenal score turns it into passionate cries as the radio interrupts with The Clovers and Jo Stafford. If anything, the film chooses to argue how this love is more vital than the heterosexual normative of the Dwight D. Eisenhower version of America. Throughout the film, the love shown between Carol and Therese's respective lives show the faulty headiness of men and the clairvoyant fashion of women. Despite never having a positive male figure within the film, it isn't a pandering cry to gay culture, but to what defines loves. Mara's slow progression between timidity and confidence can be seen in the way she slowly familiarizes herself with Blanchett's confident character who, despite her own child custody issues, is more willing to embrace what makes her happy.

The film is a beautiful exploration of love, regardless of sexual orientation. With tenderness, Haynes manages to slowly create a beautiful vision of what romance is at its core. We're drawn to it, even if it sabotages a good lifestyle. The film challenges the very notion of the value of a relationship if happiness is absent. At various points, it is challenged in ways that are powerful, implicit, or occasionally comical. Giving the thankless performance of the film, Kyle Chandler stars as Harge: Carol's ex-husband, who is not taking the break-up well. Despite his desperation, he will never have her again. It is largely his fault, as he always saw her as his wife and never her husband. Small possessive statements open deeper subtext about its subjects. 

By this point, Haynes' film is a masterpiece simply because of how it has evolved from the opening scene. We are no longer looking at the world of women in the 1950's through a male lens, but through the world of love through an actual couple. Therese is a photographer, discovering the beauty of humanity for the first time. She is always seen with a camera, snapping pictures of Carol - smiling all the way. The moments become intimate, more sensual, and more personal as the film develops. Things have long passed since the outside world was shut out from their privacy. It is in the center of the film that things become most sublime, with Mara and Blanchett giving one of the purest depictions of love ever to grace the screen.

Carol is a film that will likely be talked about for awhile when it gets a proper home video release. While it's easy to immediately judge the cinematography and writing, there's plenty of subtext that goes into how love is depicted by the spectator and the person. Various visual compositions are hard to fully embrace on an initial watch; choosing to have a deeper metaphor buried in silence. It's a film that pushes the boundaries of film and shows a forbidden love that doesn't stop at just being amazing LGBT material, but at what draws us closer to each other despite all urges to not. Maybe things will be made clearer to the viewer when rewatched and maybe there will be exhaustive video essays to fill in the gaps for the casual viewer, but what Carol achieves as entertainment is something that rarely appears in cinemas. It's a distillation of happiness without any need to apologize, which may be its biggest achievement. 

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