Seeing and Desire: Todd Haynes’s Carol
This Is Where We Came In
This is one part in a series of short essays on Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015). This part is on aesthetics and including a close reading of Todd Haynes’s film in a tradition alongside Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.
Even when contemporary critics condemn Todd Haynes for a dearth of emotional connection and an (perceived) inconsistent intellectual quality in his films, they must always concede the argument that he is a master stylist. Yet this, some would say, overbearing control over the pictorial aspect of his films is the very thing that has led many to find his films unmoving and empty-headed. Far from Heaven, with its exaggerated pastiche of Technicolor, affected performances and compositions, was to many a film that lacked true psychological concern and favored the coldness of postmodernism. In direct counterpoint, Mildred Pierce’s slow pace, subdued color palette, and naturalistic composition and performances just seemed too methodical and distant from its subjects to really move the audience.
I reject both of these arguments, finding them indicative of a mindset that suggests that style and content are dichotomous, rather than intrinsically connected and informative of each other. Haynes’s stylistic concerns descend from the two greatest masters of 1950s Technicolor, Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli (of course, no one can discount the masters of 1940s Technicolor—The Archers: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, but they serve no apparent place here). Sirk and Minnelli both worked in the melodrama genre for part of their careers (the majority of Sirk’s), and their non-elitist adoption of the contrivances and largeness of that genre’s stories and characters allowed them to construct the most lasting, most beloved of them. Films like All That Heaven Allows (as direct an influence on Far from Heaven as any could hope to argue), Some Came Running, Written on the Wind, and Lust for Life operate on dual levels.
The first is the way our rather uninspired audiences consume films, as a point-A-point-B narrative flow that seeks out a “good story” (whatever that means), and “believable characters” (whatever that means). The second, much more valuable, much less exhaustible one is as a movement of colors, images, camera movements, lighting, and compositions. The emotional content of the films develops no less from the color palette and organization of visual elements than from the characters and story. Todd Haynes, sensitive to this obscured avant-gardism, has adopted it himself and it informs his films, Carol as much as any other.
Haynes’s film is subdued—Christmas colors mark it some of the time, but just as much are urban blues and greys, which somehow seem more pleasing to the eye because of the added texture of Edward Lachman’s 16mm film stock. Even Edward Hopper’s influence is felt in the compositional strategy: frames within the frame abound, separating characters, joining them together, one instance in particular, towards the end of the film, when Therese and another woman are looking at each other, is captured through two windows, as seen from the outside, so only two white boxes with figures in them are visible. Otherwise, off-centered compositions add some kitschy touch to the film, some Hopperesque quality that doesn’t seem to do much for the film, other than suggest to the audience “1950s.” It looks nice, and, I admit, there’s an extra charm in seeing another man perfectly framed in the same shot as Therese, who has absolutely no narrative purpose. But, that’s the organization of visual elements—narrative purpose is not the primary purpose.
One shot in the film in particular remains with me, and is joyous to watch regardless of how many times I’ve seen it. It is an argument between Therese and her boyfriend Richard (voyeuring on men being insecure about their sexual prowess is a pleasure in its own right), as Therese is about to go off and join Carol on a road trip. Richard is patriarchally upset with Therese, and after a long argument where Richard heteronormatively demeans Therese’s emotions for Carol as being that of a crush, he stamps out; Therese follows; the camera doesn’t. The hallway to the door, obscured by two other walls, appears to us only as a sliver, yet we get the image of Richard, then Therese, then the door slam, and a strand of Therese’s hair blow back from the rush of air. All without a single camera move.
When I obnoxiously lecture to my friends about film aesthetics, this last example is one that I would refer pretentiously to as “aesthetic maturity”—this is my own dual phrase. It both refers to the confidence and technical skill of a veteran director who knows they can get across a feeling or an emotion with less (i.e., less is more: John Ford and Jean Renoir representing the pinnacle of maturity), which Haynes obviously fulfills. The second is the maturity of respect—to both the audience and the characters. What critics sometimes miss while they’re criticizing Haynes’s “distance” is his understated concern for the characters. He never seems to cling too tightly to them, suffocate them with a camera that’s too close. Even one of the most tightly framed shots in the film—that of Therese on the phone with Carol, is shot from behind, obscuring most of the former’s face.
This respect oftentimes bleeds over into respect for the audience’s competency. There is no need to assault the viewers with superficial and contrived ways to grab their attention or make them feel things (is the director supposed to decide what the audience feels, or simply what the audience should react to?). The conflict and action of the scene, as it is, will suffice and the audience will be called upon to be co-creators of meaning and emotion in the scene. Subject-object positioning is always close by in a Todd Haynes film, and the desire inherent in it is one of Carol’s chief concerns:
The final sequence of the film is a slow-motion walk from the entrance of the Oak Room, an elite restaurant, to Carol’s table, which Therese is looking for. The camera becomes unstable, the room itself is drenched in red (recall the use of color as narrative). There are dozens of tables filled with people, and so Carol becomes one of many. Therese is dressed nicely, with red lipstick (that should remind us of a previous scene where Carol and Therese give each other makeovers). The handheld camera cuts between a close-up of her and a moving shot from her perspective. Once she’s close enough, all calms down, and a shot of Carol looking at Therese—at the camera—is the final image, then black.
I would like to first interrupt this analysis by saying, I hate this shot. I hate it. Every time I see it, I hate it. Not in concept, or design, but because the shakiness of the camera is beyond appropriate. Too much. It’s too dramatic a change with too violent a shake. So frustrating. And the worst part? I cannot tell whether this is deliberate, or if I’m the only one who finds this to be an annoyance.
Haynes is telling us something important. This is a film about desire, and about these two characters’ desire for each other. The assumption of a first-person camera asks us to be Therese, to look at this as she does, to look at Carol as she does—to desire her, to love her (which, with Cate Blanchett, isn’t difficult). Yet, this is when we are asked to do it. Now, when they are both fully clothed, with swelling music behind the scene, with the hope that the two will unite and stay together; not earlier, when the two consummate their love, when we see little before the screen fades to black. (The handling of this scene should be juxtaposed to La vie d’Adèle/Blue Is the Warmest Color, in order to both get a sense of the problematic nature of the Blue’s sequences, and also the non-importance of physical intimacy in Carol. Sex and desire for Kechiche is a physical thing, a corporeal aspect; for Haynes it is viewing, it is making, it is emotional. Neither is necessarily better than the other.)
Haynes makes a point to aestheticize everything in this film, but not objectify anything or anyone. And the connecting of sex and aesthetics in our society almost always leads to objectification. The abstraction of writhing bodies, if only very shortly, sparks desire, but not desire for the bodies we are seeing, but rather an empathetic understanding of the desire Therese and Carol have for each other.