Todd Haynes is a master of the semiotics of repression, of portraying people who are caught within various forms of social control, and who work, however haltingly and unsuccessfully, to express the truth of their identity despite the pressure brought to bear by such controls. Identity is his great theme, in particular the mysterious realization it takes as it is formed, ad hoc, or emerges, inchoate, from within the half-sleep of consciousness. Thus, his greatest films are those that deal with this topic without the “contaminate” of love to complicate things – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, I’m Not There, the little-remembered short Dottie Gets Spanked, and his still greatest Safe (one of the greatest films in contemporary cinema aside from being his personal best). Now, many would argue that identity cannot be formed outside of a relationship to another person – that it is indeed absurd to speak of such an idea. This is psychoanalytically true; our primary relationship from birth is with our mother, and it is through relating to her, and distinguishing her body and person from our own, that we form an original idea of self. If we take the search for love as the quest, in adulthood, for a reunification with that (perhaps illusory) maternal state of identity loss, acceptance, and re-formation, then the romantic relationship is perhaps the crucible of identity and change for us “grown-ups.” At the same time, though, the romantic relationship is very normative, and we often desire it for reasons that have little to do with an authentic search for identity – we desire it because we desire to conform to social expectations, and affirm our identity in another sphere. Haynes deals with both kinds of identification in his films, both the need to conform and the often oppositional need to express (irrational) desires. This is why he almost always sets his films in the past, as social expectations and the patterns of conformity they engender are easier to see in hindsight. Not only that, it is easier to read the social codes of a past era intelligibly, and, at the same time, to project our own age into the past as a way to search out our own repressions and blind spots, as if in relief. While this is admirable, and I do not blame him for it, it succeeds too well in some cases – those cases being the films that deal with romantic love. Far from Heaven, Carol, and, to a lesser extent, Mildred Pierce, all portray desire rather than embody it. Haynes’s failure is that, while we come away understanding how we are intended to feel about the relationships portrayed, we fall short of actually feeling the emotions he’d like us to – they are indicated, rather than expressed, and these films end up, like many relics of the past, inert, glazed in a kind of preserving amber that, while allowing us to see the detail of the period quite clearly, are also rather bloodless, the emotions on the other side of an impenetrable surface.
Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s early pseudonymous novel, concerns a love affair between well-to-do housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the younger, semi-bohemian shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara). These women meet, happenstance, when Carol comes into Therese’s section of the department store she works at, looking for a doll for her daughter (and settling, per Therese’s advice, on a train instead). Both women are already attached to men; Carol in an unhappy marriage to husband Harge (an excellent Kyle Chandler), Therese in a rather one-sided romance with conventional and unimaginative Richard (Jake Lacy). Both women are instantly attracted to each other, and Carol, perhaps purposefully, forgets her gloves, giving Therese a reason to contact her again. They arrange a meeting, and soon Therese is spending Sunday afternoon with Carol at her large country home – much to Harge’s consternation. We soon understand that Harge and Carol’s marriage is on the rocks, and apparently has been for a long time, as they both have tried to accommodate her attraction to women. Harge, seemingly controlled by his mother, is taking daughter Rindy (Sadie and K.K. Heim) with him to Florida for Christmas, while Carol will stay at home, apparently set to spend time with best friend, and past lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson). Instead, Carol and Therese have some alone time, which winds up torpedoing what was left of Therese’s sham relationship with Richard. Carol, in need of solace after Harge threatens to take Rindy away from her, and, we assume, desperate to activate the physical side of her desire for Therese, decides to go on a road trip “out west,” and invites Therese to go along. Therese eagerly agrees, not only to spent time with Carol, but to feed her burgeoning interest in photography, a hobby that she hopes will become more, and which has been encouraged not only by Carol, but by understanding friend (and would-be suitor) Dannie (John Magaro), who works at the New York Times. On the road trip, Carol and Therese finally consummate their love (in a scene that, it must be said, is erotic, without being overly passionate); however, this peak is also a valley, as they are snooped on by private investigator Tommy (Cory Michael Smith), who is working for Harge, digging up dirt on his wife’s “amoral” relations with women to use against her in the impending custody battle. Carol flees the trip, flying back to New York to attend to legal matters, leaving Therese in the care of Abby, who drives her back east. Eventually, Carol and Harge come to terms, mostly because Carol chooses her identity over access to her child, and in the end Carol confesses her love for Therese. Is it too late, though? The ending of the film revolves around Therese’s desire for Carol, and her decision to take the relationship further, or not.
As previously mentioned, the attention to period detail in Carol is peerless, and not just in the surface trappings; the film is a corrective to our often patronizing view of the past as an uncomplicated land of steely repression and willed ignorance. Everyone in the film, from Richard to Harge to Tommy, understands, with varying degrees of sympathy, what is happening between Carol and Therese. It is not portrayed as foreign, exotic, or shocking, and the impossibility of the relationship, refreshingly, has more to do with previous romantic commitments (driven, of course, by convention and social expectation) rather than fear of being ostracized or cast out of society. (It also helps that the film is set in New York). And, ultimately, we do feel the emotional stakes involved, partly because of Carol’s sacrifice (her willingness to choose her own desire over access to her daughter), but mostly because of an exceptional performance by Rooney Mara as Therese. Her coming-to-awareness of her identity goes hand-in-hand with her growing courage and authenticity, which expands as her self-consciousness does. It is not so much in the results that the film fails us, but in the origins. We never understand, nor feel, the attraction between Therese and Carol. Yes, we understand that it is meant to be instant, a kind of love (or lust) at first sight, but the best Haynes can do to communicate this is having Carol coolly, and knowingly, sashay away while Therese stares at her a bit bug-eyed. And in the resulting long build-up to their trip, and sexual encounter, we never feel the heat. The relationship feels stilted, and distant, which may be a result of the characters’ differences in age, experience, and social status, but which gives the lie to the original, and supposedly overriding, primal desire. As with the relationship between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven, we can understand intellectually what is happening, we just can’t understand it emotionally. Far from Heaven had the added interest of being based on an existing melodrama (two, actually), and so that built-in turmoil made it marginally more interesting, but in both cases, for stories that are supposed to be about the sturm und drang of forbidden love, the results are often quite boring. Why do the love relationships in Haynes’s films have this problem? I have thought long on possible reasons, and have come up with two possibilities. One is that he does not give his characters enough build-up; we do not see them in their natural habitats, being themselves, for long enough, nor are we familiar enough with their inner worlds (as expressed in the quietude of “uneventful” sequences) to have a fuller identification with them. The larger problem, though, are the period settings. While it makes it easier for us to identify and parse how the social codes communicate (and, as mentioned above, allows us to reflect on our own codes more fully), it also has the ironic consequence of repressing our desire for the characters. They seem distant because they are distant; their concerns, to some extent, are not our own, their worlds are alien to us. As a fan of Todd Haynes, I would love to see him take on similar issues in a contemporary setting, and it is interesting that his best film is also his only contemporary one. I begin to wonder if he takes on so many projects set in the past because they are, in a way, purer realms of signification, free of the contaminates of present-day politics. They are safe. Here’s to hoping he soon makes a film that is messier, and less aesthetic, than his work of the past decade.