When Todd Haynes directed his 2002 film Far from Heaven, the spirit of Douglas Sirk hung over the proceedings. Incorporating the melodramatic tropes of Sirk was, at the time, taken as one of his trademark exercises in semiotics, but at this point, it now seems more like a turning point in his career. It marks a line between the prickly, pointed likes of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Poison, and the fulfillment of his move toward aesthetic (ascetic?) refinement, represented first (and still best) by his 1995 masterpiece [safe].
Whereas Far from Heaven always struck me as a bit too on-the-nose about its spin on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows — and, in that, a far less successful experiment than R.W. Fassbinder’s own unofficial remake Fear Eats the Soul — after his HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce and now Carol (set to open this weekend in the Twin Cities), it seems now more than ever that Haynes, the post-punk whose merciless and incongruously humorous Superstar so irked the Carpenter estate that it was sued out of circulation, is fully invested in exploring the fullest contours of the language of melodrama.
Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therese, two inexorably drawn toward each other in the early 1950s. While it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that their attraction runs counter to then-current societal mores, one of the most attractive qualities of Carol is that it really doesn’t, at any point, define their relationship against tragic external circumstances.
Yes, outside factors do come into play, most notably Carol’s dissolving marriage and her soon-to-be ex-husband’s wounded pride. But the drama by and large remains powered entirely by the dynamics of its two central characters, which if you think about it is actually something of a revision of traditional melodramatic rules. (One exceptional scene externalizes Carol’s happiness at having Therese accept her invitation to take an impetuous road trip with the sudden, beautiful arrival of snowfall.
I had the opportunity to speak with Haynes and producer Christine Vachon (who has worked with Haynes and many others for decades now in a distinguished career) a few weeks back when Carol made its Twin Cities premiere at the Walker. Here is our conversation:
Eric Henderson: The first thing I thought about when I saw Carol was … as a fan of [director Douglas] Sirk — and obviously having seen Far From Heaven — this one felt, I don’t want to say corrective, but it felt like an evolution from that film in that Sirk films work in dual purposes. They’re on both sides of the mirror, so to speak. And Carol for me, there was a moment where they’re up on the roof, and Therese agrees to go with her on the road trip, and it snows, and Cate Blanchett looks up at the snow with this look of joy on her face, and I thought that was such a thrilling moment, and it felt very Sirkian to me, in that this is a Patricia Highsmith scenario and it could go any number of ways. I haven’t read the book, but I was anticipating it to go, you know, maybe …
Todd Haynes: South [Laughs.]
Henderson: Exactly. What is it about this sort of Sirkian kind of fascination?
Haynes: Well, I really, for Carol, I wasn’t really thinking a lot about Sirk, actually. And I think it’s because how much point of view plays a role in love stories, and that really became my point of entry, I think, in trying to locate how love stories that have an impact on me on film work, and also what was really interesting about the novel to begin with. And Sirk, you know, doesn’t function in that way. Sirkian film really aren’t, at least the way I see them, they’re not about identification. They don’t have voiceover. A lot of the love stories that are rooted, classic love stories rooted in point of view use voiceover as a mechanism for locating you there. And Brief Encounter (1945), which is one of the first films I thought of when I read the script and read the novel, made an impact even on some work I did with Phyllis Nagy on the novel. And what’s so interesting about Brief Encounter is it basically sets up the question, “Whose story is this?” by starting with all these little slight deceptors, where you enter the refreshment stand in the train station, you meet these secondary characters, they’re yammering away in their Cockney, and then you see Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the background having a conversation. You’re like, “Aren’t they the stars?” [Laughs.]
Henderson: Which happens in the first scene [of Carol].
Haynes: Which happens in Carol. And then a woman interrupts their conversation, and you realize something’s up, something of importance has been interrupted. But even then you don’t really know. A few other things happen before we travel home on the train with Celia Johnson, and she goes home to her husband, sits down opposite him, he’s reading the evening paper, and her voiceover begins. And it’s finally there. You’re like, “Ah, OK, I’ve landed,” you know. “I know who is going to carry me through this film.” And that voiceover takes you all the way through the story up till that conversation, which you then understand the full meaning of. So yeah, that was what to me was the linchpin for the whole idea of the love story and how it works.
Henderson: So bringing up Brief Encounter, the last time I saw it seemed to me — I mean I love the movie — but it seemed to me kind of that real, quintessential British, repressed, stiff-upper-lip kind of movie, whereas Carol, one of the things that seems so refreshing to me in terms of how it deals with homosexuality in the 50s in America, you know, God forbid, is that Carol herself is still as free-spirited as you can imagine a character in that position being. I mean, she says at one point, “We’re not ugly people.” Her husband, at the end of the day, still loves her, and he can’t help himself. So was there a conscious decision … to make sure that homosexuality was not depicted as the white elephant in the room?
Haynes: Well, again, I find all the ways in which homosexuality gets depicted in films and its complicated history in representation, and the way that, you know, the pre-Stonewall culture that this is definitely exploring are all things I can’t, I’m not necessarily interested in correcting. Like I think they have a complicated, deep history that’s really rich and really, if anything they’re things about, you know, being forced into the margins, outside the status quo, outside of social acceptance, that sharpened countercultures, and just does that, you know. And the history of gay life and language and critique and camp and all these things is such a complicated, rich one. And in a way it’s completely gone away, for all the correct legislative, progressive reasons that you need to embrace. But it’s a tradeoff, and there are things that get lost and forgotten along the way, you know. And one of the things that was so interesting about this novel was that there is something very, you know, on the one hand there is something completely up front about Carol and her relationship to Abby (Sarah Paulson) and the fact that this already complicated this marriage, and they talk about Abby. But on the other hand, Therese can’t even look at … a butch, fem couple in a record store giving her the eye without a complete sense of perversion and a desire to run the other way, and then ask her boyfriend [if he] has ever been in love with a boy — but I don’t mean like “those” people. So there are all kinds of really nuanced ways of positioning yourself in and around these choices that aren’t just simple, not that you’re saying they’re simple, or just that they’re at a state of a kind of forthright self-conviction or something, you know what I mean? They really still are begging a lot of big questions of those people.
Henderson: Christine [Vachon, producer of Carol] … you’ve produced the ’90s version of Stonewall (1995) …
Christine Vachon: Oh right [laughs], yes I did!
Henderson: Isn’t it kind of thrilling though that we’re kind of at that stage where you can be really, I don’t criticize maybe in a bad way, but … obviously the newer Stonewall (2015) that came out came under heavy fire for the way it brought representation and how it sort of siphoned everything through the most identifiable character. Isn’t it kind of thrilling that we’re still in that stage, or is there any kind of outlook you feel like …
Vachon: Is this sort of like, “What’s on the horizon for queer cinema?”
Henderson: Right. [Laughs.]
Vachon: It’s a hard question. I mean, I think part of the reason that Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall came under such attack is because it’s not good. That is, you know, first and foremost one of the things, you know, like a movie comes and, “Oh, people are not interested in gay stories.” Well, they’re not interested in bad gay stories, you know. And Stonewall, specifically, is one of those events …
Haynes: I love that you’re just saying this! [Everyone laughs.] It’s going to be in the headline!
Henderson: If she said it was a good movie — that would be the headline.
Vachon: Exactly! But Stonewall is one of those events that so many people feel so much ownership over, and, you know, from all the different mythologies, like, “A lesbian threw the first stone,” to, “It was all black and Hispanic kids.” When we made our Stonewall, I met a lot of people who claimed to have been there, and the bar just would’t have been big enough for them all to have been there.
Henderson: As a producer, what projects do you really kind of gravitate towards? What really excites you when you’re deciding what to produce?
Vachon: Does it feel original? Does it feel like, especially these days, you know, when I first started producing movies, it didn’t occur to us that there was any kind of way except for theatrical release. There really wasn’t, for a film like Poison (1991) for example, or even Safe (1995), those movies, like the ancillaries, the TV rights, all those things, VHS didn’t even really exist when we started Poison, or it really wasn’t in our universe. Those movies, their only life was theatrical. So the idea that now there are stories that are suited for different kinds of platforms … that’s a big deal. So if I am going to produce something that is going to be a theatrical release, I really have to think about what makes it theatrical. What is it about this story, about the talent it could potentially attract, about, you know, what’s going to make people leave their homes.
Henderson: Going back to that idea of the point of view and whose story is this. The one line from the film that stuck out for me the most is being, in a way the most erotic line was, well, obviously it was an erotic scene, but right at the beginning of their first love-making, and she looked at her body and said, “I never looked like this.” It spoke to me, at least, in terms of being a gay man and sort of the familiarity of your partner, you understand how their body works and at the same time it’s still an other. It just struck me.
Haynes: I love that you mentioned the line. That was a line in some contention in some notes on the script that people didn’t particularly, and even in the cut didn’t care for the line …
Vachon: That’s right, I forgot about that.
Henderson: And to me, it’s like the crucial line.
Haynes: I know … But I had to, because even among gay men, I don’t know how often, I mean, that is something gay men can say to each other, but even then it’s sort of, because there’s still this objectivication that might go on where you don’t want to let your guard down and say something that, you know, that drops your own sort of thing, you know …
Henderson: Makes you vulnerable?
Haynes: That. [Laughs.] But that women already have a closer relationship to the way their bodies are objectified already in the world, perhaps. And that, you know, maybe women who aren’t lesbians can say that to each other freely, going shopping together. The fact that women, two women about to make love can say that to each other just distinguished it even further as something really distinctive.
Henderson: So, did this script note come primarily from men would you say?
Haynes: Yes, straight men primarily [Henderson and Vachon laugh.] who just didn’t think it made sense or it pulled them out somehow. But I talked to my lesbian friends about it. It was a line I actually checked out because …
Vachon: He has a whole committee. [Henderson and Vachon laugh.]
Haynes: I definitely do.
Henderson: The lesbian task force.
Vachon: He does.
Haynes: Yes I do. They have made me who I am today. No, some of my dearest, closest friends are, happen to be lesbian women. Women and lesbians, both, doubly. [Vachon and Henderson laugh.]
Vachon: And they’re hard on him.
Henderson: And some women who aren’t lesbians, and some lesbians who aren’t women.
Haynes: Exactly. My boyfriend calls me a lesbian sometimes. I don’t think it’s a compliment, I don’t think he means it in the best way. But they all were like, “Yeah, that’s a really truthful moment,” and that’s really a unique thing, you know, that you don’t hear. Even though you kind of go, “I bet Carol looked pretty great at that age.” [Everyone laughs.] And what’s so cool about Carol is that it’s the older woman who’s the object of desire in the movie, you know. And you have these two exquisite actresses playing these roles. And I also think what’s so remarkable about Cate’s performance, among all the other things, is that she has to conduct all of these different proximities in her performance of closeness to her character. And there are times where if she was too sort of colloquial or too kind of friendly or revealing to the camera, that distance that Therese, that you need to believe that pulls them into these separate poles, and puts them one either side of the glass or the mirrors or whatever it is, that illusion would be gone. And so Cate had to know how to play the image of Carol and the real and very complicated woman who is Carol at the same time — and also know where the camera was and what it was doing. And that’s like, that’s a whole, you know, kabuki of nuance that is really extraordinary.