Tuesday 1 December 2015
Aird Today, Gone Tomorrow
Directed by Todd Haynes
UK cinema release print.
That’s probably a good word for this movie, if I’d been asked to sum it up immediately after seeing it at my local cinema.
I don’t think I’ve seen any movies directed by Todd Haynes apart from his other 1950s set film Far From Heaven... which was pretty good and lured me to the cinema with the promise of an interesting Elmer Bernstein score. In the case of Carol there were a number of factors which compelled me to pick this one out among others for my Sunday trip to the local picture house this week.
For one thing, I’d not read a single tweet about this movie from people who had been to see it at the London Film Festival that was, in any way, negative. They’d all been downright through the roof in terms of their positivity, in actual fact. There was also the promise of a new score by Carter Burwell, a composer who I quite like, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. The few tweets I’d seen about the score, however, were also extremely enthusiastic... and so I decided to see this one as soon as I could to see what I thought of said score, in case a purchase of the CD was necessary.
Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t say a major draw to going to see this movie was the prospect of seeing the villain from Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull indulging in hot ‘girl on girl’ action with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but... heck, nobody asked me so I shall refrain from mentioning that aspect of the story unless politely asked.
So this movie is based on a novel Patricia Highsmith wrote under a pseudonym in the early 1950s (which is the period in which this movie is more or less set) called The Price Of Salt. Well, I don’t know what that title’s got to do with... um... anything ;-) but, whatever, it was retitled Carol decades later when it was reprinted under Highsmith’s own name. Alas, it’s not a novel I have read so, in terms of the quality of the adaptation, I can’t tell you how true it is to the source novel... although I understand the ending is not far off, in fact.
What I can tell you is that, with Carol, I’ve seen an absolutely amazing movie and one which will easily slide somewhere into my top ten for this year. The film centres on the intense, loving relationship between the two main protagonists Therese Belivet (pronounced Tirez), and played by Rooney Mara and the title character Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett... and the devastating effect it has on both their lives, especially when it is used against Carol to bolster an injunction to prevent her seeing her daughter during a messy, divorce child custody hearing. Both actresses, of course, are absolutely perfect in their roles... Blanchett coming over as a bit splashier than usual but, frankly, I could watch her ‘til the cows come home (so to speak) and with the pixie-like Mara playing almost an Audrey Hepburn/Breakfast At Tiffany’s kind of role, at least in terms of channeling a gorgeously delicate, waifish visual reference that makes up the look of the character.
Watching these two and the chemistry they bring to this half hidden lesbian relationship, and the subtlety of their facial expressions and body language... with the writing often leaving out unnecessary dialogue to accommodate the silent aspects of the performance... it seems pretty clear that the director couldn’t have asked for two more perfect actresses performing their central roles than these two do here. What they bring with them in terms of professional performance is absolutely astonishing.
What’s more rewarding here though, is that the visual design, the editing and the sound design all work in perfect harmony and are used to enhance the performances to the nth degree, with Haynes meticulous control over the look and sound of the film being quite evident in every frame which flickers past the eyes and ears. This is amazing cinema and the director is doing some really cool but controlled things here.
I say he’s meticulous because he’s using pretty much every vertical (and the occasional curve) to split the screen and chop it up into sections throughout the entire movie. Using the lines in sharp contrast, even when they are a background element, and placing the various actors within these sectioned off spaces to lead the eyes of the audience to go exactly where he wants them to in order to pick up on the details of the rich performances littered throughout the canvass of this extraordinary work of art. It’s quite startling how much he does this all the way throughout the running time too... pretty much most, if not all, of the time, I would guess. It’s like watching an Italian giallo from the late 1960s/early 1970s or a movie by Sergio Leone. Everything is compartmentalised and framed within a specific section of space... blinding stuff.
Another thing he does, not quite as often but certainly enough that it keeps cropping up again and again throughout the movie, is to have the camera eye of the collective audience look through something (or occasionally peak out from behind something in terms of camera movement to fulfil the destination of the final frame in a sequence) such as a sheet of distressed glass or a curtain or some such transparent, textured material. This gives the element to a lot of the movie of each audience member being a voyeur rather than just naturally following the drama in the way one normally would. We are collectively eavesdropping on conversations and moments of expression as we observe through a secondary layer and this, of course, makes the audience feel more empathy with the characters even as the director uses the distance of that intermediary plane, combined with the compartmentalising of the screen I’ve already talked about, as a form of visual tension. And, of course, in the many shots where he doesn’t use this tactic, we are suddenly, through that style of entrance into certain scenes of the characters who inhabit the movie, brought into the midst of the action with no barrier to empathy at all. This is because the contrast between shots where he does this and shots where he doesn’t conditions us to feel completely relaxed and in the moment.
He also uses sound quite brilliantly.
For instance, he has a cleverly constructed sequence at the start which he sets up to be a potential book end device for the film and from which most of the action of the running time takes place in flashback. When we see an emotionally fuelled moment early on in the proceedings, which we know will mean a whole lot more to us when we see the back story of the two leading protagonists, Therese finds herself whisked away in a taxi and looking out the window in a possible moment of deep regret (and yeah, of course, we are observing her from the outside of the window which has rain trickling down the glass). As we sense the tension building, the director has the natural sounds of the street, cars and alarm bells from passing premises, coming up in volume on the foley with all the kind of impact that a whistling kettle has when it’s near to boiling point. This perfectly re-enforces the tensions of the emotions the viewer senses he or she is supposed to be feeling while simultaneously signalling the affirmation of alarm as the key tone of the character at this point. And, again, this is a tactic the director seems to use a few times during the course of the film.
And staying with this opening sequence... the other clever thing he does, by using this flashback formula, is set up an assumption that we are seeing the end of the movie when, in fact... well I really don’t want to spoil this one for you but the opening sets up an emotional tone which doesn’t necessarily reveal the true ending of the movie. To quote a cliché, it isn’t over until the fat lady sings and all I will say about the conclusion of this particular ‘forbidden romance’ is... it’s not what I was expecting and I’m a sucker for this kind of ending. So I was really pleased with the way the story content in this movie turned out.
And, of course, we have that score.
Carter Burwell’s score.
Which, to be honest, really was the main reason why I was so curious to see this one. What can I say? It’s brilliant, moving, comes and goes at just the right times in the mix (in between the various 1950s song standards that litter the soundscape) and heightens the emotions beautifully. It is rich and vibrant and I’m pretty sure that as a standalone experience it will be truly wonderful... I know this because I was toe tapping practically the whole way through the movie like I was watching some kind of rock video. However, it has to be said... it’s also a complete copy of the compositional style of composer Philip Glass. I don’t mean just the minimalistic, short cells repeating to bind a slower melody hiding in a faster rhythm approach that Glass uses either... I mean the orchestration of it too. It’s absolutely pseudo-Glass from a specific period which dates it, to my mind, as having come from any or all of his theatre or opera works from the early to late 1980s, in tone. I don’t mean this as a slur to Burwell, who I have admired as a composer ever since I heard and then bought his score for Psycho III on vinyl all those decades ago... I’m sure this is a result of either a strong voice from the director or a case of the temp track taking over at the 11th hour and finalising the style. However, I’m not alone (it turns out) in recognising the fact that this score sounds like it was written by Glass and it does make me wonder just what went on during the post-production of this movie.
That’s okay by me though. I absolutely love the music of Philip Glass so there are no complaints from me here. A friend of mine has told me he’s getting me the score for Christmas and I am really looking forward to picking a few tracks out to play on Christmas morning, time permitting. A truly great piece of work, whether Burwell owes a debt to Glass or not, and absolutely supportive of the images while enhancing and elevating the tone of the emotions. It’s truly amazing stuff and that’s really all I’m going to say about this picture now. Carol is an absolute knock out of a movie and if you call yourself a film buff, a cinephile or, like me, just a plain old cinema goer, then you owe it to yourself not to let this one pass you by. An absolute treat of a movie by a director I’m really going to have to look out for more in the future. Just marvellous.