“That Tunnel You’re in When You First Fall in Love”: Todd Haynes on ‘Carol’ and His Radical Approach to Identity

Todd Haynes’ Carol is sure to be a great success, at least for a movie explicitly about and for adults, but hopefully that success won’t come at the cost of reducing it to a “lesbian film.” Because what’s revolutionary about Carol isn’t that it’s a love story between two women – it’s that those women are discrete, multifaceted people rather than avatars of an oppressed group. Haynes underlined this specificity at the New York Film Festival Saturday, in a public conversation with festival director Kent Jones. According to the filmmaker, Carol is most of all a story of “love cropping up in life almost as a problem” – just as it does in David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, which he cited as a key influence.

Set in the 1950s, Carol is a slow-burning, sumptuous, though never overstuffed, account of a love affair between the titular wealthy, middle-aged suburban housewife (Cate Blanchett at her most magnetic) and a young department store clerk and aspiring photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara, borrowing Audrey Hepburn’s gamine charms and adding a measured dose of gawky boyishness). There are many roadblocks to their happiness, beyond the frustratingly vague forces that always seem to oppress queer people in movies (“society,” “prejudice”). Deflecting an audience question about the film’s depiction of “Sapphic love,” Haynes pointed out that differences of age and class pose challenges that are at least as important. And, of course, other multifaceted characters become obstacles as well. Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) is pressuring her to marry him. Carol is separated from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), but he remains frighteningly out of control of his desire for her. (I can’t resist shoehorning in the following quote from Haynes, on why he chose Chandler for the role: “You have to cast a real actor opposite Cate Blanchett.”)

According to Haynes, the characters’ unique qualities and complex relationships come directly from the novel Carol is based on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. The book captures “that tunnel you’re in when you first fall in love,” he said, and “you’re so impressed by the specificity [of your feelings].” It’s a period when “your life is a minefield of symbols to be conveyed” – and that ritual of decoding the behavior of someone you’re infatuated with turns out to be “exactly like the criminal mind in all [of Highsmith’s] other novels.”

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in ‘Carol’

The Price of Salt is told from Therese’s perspective, and Haynes endeavored to preserve that subjectivity in Carol. “I wanted to structure the film around point of view,” he said, explaining that the most powerful love stories are told from “the more woundable, vulnerable point of view.” Where the film differs from the book, according to Haynes, is that the script allows for freer access to Carol. You don’t always see her through Therese’s eyes. This way, he said, you “continue aligning yourself with the person who is more in peril” when circumstances change, Therese becomes more self-possessed, and the power balance shifts – the way it often does in relationships.

Haynes rarely sets his films in the present, preferring to tell remarkably contemporary stories that take place somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. In era and in subject matter, Carol most closely resembles his Oscar-nominated 2002 film Far From Heaven. But that doesn’t mean he’s retreading old ground. While his earlier film took inspiration from Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, with a visual style that sought to recreate the Technicolor perfection of ‘50s Hollywood – down to central-casting extras so generic they might as well have been robots, Haynes noted – Carol‘s production design finds glamor in grittiness. Its New York, he said, “looks like a postwar city – it’s distressed, dirty”; this is a place “made to feel newly vulnerable by the arms race in Russia.” Both Therese’s aspirations and her surroundings were informed by great midcentury photographers – many of whom, like Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier, happened to be women.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in 'Far From Heaven'
Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in ‘Far From Heaven’

Jones suggested that what unites Haynes’ films is the way they center around characters “looking for the escape hatch.” In many cases (Carol, Far From Heaven, the 2011 HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, 1995’s Safe), these are regular women looking for respite from constraints that involve some combination of home, family, and societal oppression. Haynes cited the influence of Chantal Akerman, the groundbreaking Belgian filmmaker who died last week, on his depictions of women – especially in Safe. She was “someone thinking about female subjects and how they’re depicted… what is important and what is not important [in a daily life].” Haynes recalled watching Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in college, and finding himself under “the unbelievable spell of observing labor.”

The search for an escape hatch takes a different form in Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I’m Not There (2007), which – without uttering either musician’s name – examine how David Bowie and Bob Dylan used their music and their fame to break down confining assumptions about identity. We have this idea that “identity is this imposed state that we’re supposed to fulfill… change and mutability, stability, artifice and construction play no part,” said Haynes. “We’re supposed to find an authentic, organic self.”

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in 'Velvet Goldmine'
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in ‘Velvet Goldmine’

Velvet Goldmine is set amid what he called the “bisexual, androgynous rallying cry” of ‘70s British glam rock, a movement built on acts of self-creation that implied “radical instability in terms of sexual orientation.” These days, Haynes noted, we rarely entertain the possibility that choice might play a role in one’s sexual identity because “it’s so much easier to talk about sexual orientation as something we’re born into.”

Dylan, played in I’m Not There by a series of different actors (including Blanchett) who represent different phases of his artistic development, built and rebuilt his persona in subtler ways. Though Haynes allowed that some things about the musician never change – “he always connoted that cocksurety” – he observed that Dylan’s conversion to Christianity could have come from a an impulse similar to the one that made him suddenly go electric: a compulsion to resist the “expectation of consistency.”

“Fundamentally, he’s a creative entity who has to keep making things to survive life,” said Haynes. And to do that amid so much public scrutiny necessitates the kind of “healthy creative hostility” for which Dylan is known. Haynes may be more stylistically consistent than Bowie, easier to love than Akerman, and more generous about discussing his work than Dylan, but what he shares with all of them is some form of that creative hostility – towards stock characters and predictable stories and static, neatly defined identities.