todd haynes’ 'carol' is the lesbian love story of the year

The filmmaker tells i-D about directing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the most beautiful and heartbreaking film of the year.

by Colin Crummy
27 November 2015, 3:15pm

Carol is Todd Haynes's seventh feature film and his finest. The story of two women who fall in love across a department store floor in 50s New York, Carol is the much lauded independent filmmaker's most mainstream movie, yet it's a film that never loses any of its queer heart. Cate Blanchett plays the title character, a wealthy woman caught in a loveless marriage. Dressed in predatory furs, she buys a toy train set for her daughter from 19-year-old shop clerk Therese, played by Rooney Mara. After a brief exchange and stolen glances, Carol makes the first move, accidentally-on-purpose leaving her leather gloves as well as her contact details behind. So begins a delicate and dangerous dance that leads them to love and all its consequences.

The film is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, which articulated the obsessive quality of falling in love through Therese's eyes. But by opening a window into Carol's soul, Phyllis Nagy's script illuminates how the older woman is as vulnerable and defiant as her younger lover. Throughout the film, Haynes seduces with a sensuous, slow burning style that illuminates the on screen chemistry. Below, the director explains how he did it.

How did you prepare your actors for the film?
Something that was helpful to Cate and Rooney, and which I loved sharing with them, was my image book for the film. That compiles visual references and sets, in some context, the style and atmosphere -- the temperature of what I'm imagining. I make it for the director of photography but I never underestimate how useful it is to actors. What comes out of it are invariably the kind of films or visual references I'm calling from. I made copies for them of a docudrama called Lovers and Lollipops [a 1956 romance set in New York] that I drew images from. But I didn't really say, 'go watch Brief Encounter' -- another film which did have an impact on the script.

What did you like about the novel?
I loved how much it left you in the dark, like we all are when feelings of love first hit us. All of a sudden, you're both reading the signs around you at a more elevated level than you normally would in life. When you're in love, if even the most banal love song comes on the radio, you're like 'oh yeah, those lyrics are speaking directly to me'. Everything has meaning but you are also completely at the mercy of meaning; you can't really put it together. You're in the dark, you're lost.

Is this why point of view is so important in Carol?
The novel is completely rooted in Therese's point of view. How we establish that and deviate from that is something that I was paying close attention to in terms of adapting for the screen. [When you're falling in love] you're trying to figure out how the other person feels in return, and in Carol that dance gets stretched out pretty far. If you're using the consummation of their love for each other as a marker, it takes a long time to get to that in Carol. So Therese is in that state for a long time; and I think we're in Therese's state more so than in Carol's.

Did the characters' sexuality add to that complexity, given that there isn't the language at that time to describe her experience?
That's what makes it all the more memorable. Even when we do have the language for falling in love and even, when every pop song does seem to be filling in the words for us in contemporary life, you still can't put it all together. In this story, there is a historical truth that there is no language for this love, but it's something everybody kind of feels even when there is. It doesn't even matter that it's really true historically, that there's hardly any representations of lesbian love to be had [in 1952] because you still feel at a loss, you still feel like you're inventing it as you go along.

The film has been in production for about 15 years. Do you think Carol is a different film for being made in 2015, given how far the LGBT rights movement has progressed?
I have my suspicions about the idea that we keep moving forward as a society, getting more tolerant all the time. I do think obviously there's been a critical mass that's solidified around basic human rights for gays and lesbians in the US and the West in general. So maybe at least for a wider audience it's true that this film could find a place to land a little easier today. Maybe that is a sign of the times.

Recent gay cinema like Stonewall has been criticized for assimilating too much. Was that something you thought about with Carol?
We had a great writer [in Patricia Highsmith] who mostly understood human nature or human desire and did it without sentimentalizing it or softening it. It gave us something to really latch on to. So we didn't have to think too much about whether it would upset this person or please this group. We could just go to a solid account from the time and place.

Patricia Highsmith brought such knowledge and first person account from being there at the end of the 40s as a woman who desired other women. Maybe if there was a book that came out about Stonewall written by someone who was there, the Stonewall films we're seeing would suffer a little less from the clamor of who's telling the authentic story here or who's pandering or softening it.

What do you think may have become of Therese and Carol?
Oh, I don't know. They aren't real people but they represent real things that happened to real people. They get knocked around by the world and each other and they are not the same people that they were at the beginning of the movie. We at least want them to feel they should have a shot.


Text Colin Crummy
Photography  Cameron Wittig

Todd Haynes
Cate Blanchett
Rooney Mara