Falling in love, enjoying love, mourning lost love, and remembering it all from a distance—these are the subjects of Todd Haynes’s masterful Carol, a film that’s thrillingly acute in its understanding of its characters’ emotions, which are often held in check or revealed only in kinds of code. It’s also an overwhelming visual experience, steeped in Haynes’s broad knowledge of cinema history, and, of course, the greatest love stories. I sat down with Haynes at the New York Film Festival, and we spoke of cinephilia, cinema technique, and the deceptive simplicity of the romantic pas de deux between the high society matron Carol (Cate Blanchett) and the working-class shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara).
I know you programmed Klute in the upcoming Film Society of Lincoln Center series you put together. I thought that several shots in Carol were very Pakula-esque.
Absolutely. Starting especially with Mildred Pierce, I was looking very closely at the whole period of American filmmaking in the 1970s, when directors like Alan Pakula were introducing fresh ways of looking at traditional genres. Movies like Klute and The Parallax View were taking classical modes of storytelling and making them seem newly relevant to the political situation of the time, but when you look at those films now, you see how they were also honoring a lot of what were, to directors working in the 1970s, classic movies. You see this in the cinematography, the use of natural light, real locations, a whole new set of young actors. There’s also a relaxation of what once were strict expectations of genres, such as film noir for the Godfather films, or the thriller in the case of several of Pakula’s movies.
Do you like The Sterile Cuckoo, also Pakula?
Yeah, amazing movie.
Liza Minnelli was a very new face at that time.
And the actor, Wendell Burton. You saw him in a lot of things around that time. Pakula also produced To Kill a Mockingbird.
That fueled his career for quite a while.
Oh yeah, and what films…Klute is such a masterpiece, and The Parallax View, All the President’s Men.
I probably watch All the President’s Men once a year.
I feel that way as well. It’s such a brilliant film, so sharp and focused.
When I watched your earlier films, like Safe and Poison, I don’t think my eyes were trained to spot the use of a telephoto lens, but when you brought it up on your commentary for the Mildred Pierce Blu-ray, it kind of clicked and I can now spot it more easily. Did you start to use it heavily on Mildred Pierce? It’s heavily used in Carol.
It’s really film by film where I make a set of decisions concerning the look, and a lot of those decisions are influenced by how we’re going to replicate or make reference to films that are contemporary to the story we’re telling, or relevant to the story, which means one thing for Velvet Goldmine, a number of things for I’m Not There, and another for Mildred Pierce. With Velvet Goldmine we were looking at movies from that era, and so we used effects that were common to those movies: the zooms and telephoto framing. That’s probably the first one where you see a lot of telephoto. In the Richard Gere section of I’m Not There, you’ve got the “hippie westerns” of Peckinpah and George Roy Hill, using new developments in lens and camera technology to achieve a new way of looking at what might be older stories.
With a lot of those movies, the telephoto lens allowed you to do things that have roots in neorealism—allowing actors to perform in real or minimally constructed locations without getting a lot of interference and funny stuff from things that weren’t a part of the movie. You could do these elaborate compositions in tight spaces.
Well, also the narrow depth of field has its beginnings in earliest cinema, through Murnau and the silent era, even in films with Garbo.
As you use telephoto and other devices in Carol and Mildred Pierce, it creates this paradox where you have a pair of effects, one where we’re placed in a close, intimate space with your characters, another where it seems like they feel like we’re looking at them behind a glass enclosure, or through a microscope.
It flattens, makes it look more like a painting. And with Carol we were thinking a lot about those filters of information. You might see Carol and Therese across barriers and through plates of glass, or they see each other that way.
There a lot of emotionally fraught moments in Carol, but one stood out for me: the scene where Carol gives Therese the camera. To me you created a solution to a character problem, which is, how do you represent a sudden surge of emotion from a character who’s very reserved and who’s undergone a lifetime of social training to hide or code her true feelings. What seems like a pretty straightforward scene is really operating on a number of emotional registers.
It’s a demonstration of Therese’s worth. And it was one of the many decisions on the film concerning who, in a given moment, was the movie’s true subject. Because the book, while it’s not a first-person account, conveys that Therese is the subject. It’s locked inside her subjectivity. Nothing happens to Carol that Therese doesn’t witness or hear about.
You equip the viewer early on with that, when it begins on both Carol and Therese, then pulls into Therese’s flashback.
Even before then, we’re playing with a little misdirection, where the guy walks into the scene, and it’s like the start of Brief Encounter. So, in that movie, we meet the secondary characters first, while in the background there’s Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, as if they’re merely extras. And then their conversation is interrupted by some loudmouth gossip, and in that moment, in Brief Encounter and in Carol as well, we understand instantly that we’ve interrupted a conversation of enormous gravity. And that pull back into Therese’s subjectivity, the way she sees the world, it’s like that trick we play on ourselves when we fall in love, and we say to ourselves, we’re so brilliant for falling in love with this person, this perfect object of desire.
The movie is also about love at different ages, and you yourself have different ages to look back on. You study what love means to someone who’s barely in their 20s, and, simultaneously, what it means when you aren’t at that age anymore.
And it’s not like Therese learns to be older, gains some massive understanding of what it’s like to be Carol. But how I viewed the film, Carol is more demonstrative so her object status, and Therese’s subject status, where she’s much more quiet and internal, this has a way of balancing the playing field a little bit.
The best love stories put us on the side of the one who’s most woundable—the one who can get the most hurt. And that’s why that balance shifts. Therese is young, gets hurt, gets defensive, changes, and grows. And by the end, she has barriers, she has limits, that she didn’t have initially. Now it’s Carol who’s open and vulnerable, and that’s when we return to the same scene from the beginning, but from a shifted vantage point.