Think I’m at the point with Todd Haynes where he’s mostly ceased to surprise me. And by that I mean do much of anything unexpected. Of course there will be the slightly academic appropriations of Sirk and Fassbinder. But now there’s also a square respectability to his approach that I find deflating. I wish these recent women’s melodramas had more of the pranksterish qualities (in abstract) of his earlier work. Out of that attitude, strangely, came the genuine devastation of films like Poison, Safe and Velvet Goldmine. Carol, weirdly, comes off at times like Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story done straight (pun intended, girl). Haynes is just using porcelain figurines instead of plastic ones.
I think I can pinpoint the camel’s back breaking: It was when T.H. said he made Far From Heaven because he wanted to make people cry. Haynes and emotional directness don’t mix; he needs to be roundabout in his methods in order to sear the soul. That’s part of the reason I proselytize for his “I’m Still Here” segment of the recent Six By Sondheim because it begins in such a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me! kind of way with Jarvis Cocker crooning the Carlotta Campion anthem from Follies to a nightclub full of gloomy biddies. But the hepcat archness slowly segues into crushing poignance; I caught my breath at the end in a way I haven’t since Julianne Moore, as Haynes’ other Carol, whispered her fourth-wall-breaking “I love you.”
In contrast, Carol plays pretty conventional, beginning with your usual “great” Cate Blanchett performance that’s chiefly studied mannerism (watch the uber-rehearsed way she inhales/exhales a cigarette), though I do think she nails the climactic scenes with embittered, soon-to-be ex-husband Harge (a terrific Kyle Chandler) and department store inamorata Therese (Rooney Mara, affecting china doll inscrutability throughout). The latter sequence also revolves, as in Safe, around an “I love you” that sounds as if it’s being upchucked, though here with prim daintiness.
Blanchett and Mara have a good rapport that never pierced me emotionally. And I really disliked the two lengthy scenes in which Jake Lacy, as the uptight Richard, confronts Therese about her obsession with Carol. His indignance feels very first draft, and I’m loathe to think of other sequences in a Haynes film that are as poorly directed from a performance standpoint.
I did love those moments, however, when the dialogue resonated with the cutting frankness of Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, on which Carol is based. Her words (adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy) bear the brunt of what little psychological excavating there is. Edward Lachman’s grain-flecked Super-16 cinematography is nice, but, again, expected in its past-is-a-hazy-mirror limpidness. And composer Carter Burwell does a killer Philip Glass impression, though it seems as facile a referential cribbing to me as Lachman and Haynes’ numerous Edward Hopper-isms.