Beauty betrayed by Boredom: Some thoughts on Haynes’ ‘Carol’
I have not read Highsmith’s novel on which ‘Carol’ is based, but this piece is more of an account of my impression of the film’s self-conscious stylization.
There was a time when Todd Haynes’s cinema interested me for its inversion of genre aesthetics. Alas, after seeing ‘Carol’, I have come to the conclusion that much of the studied aesthetics that once seemed intriguing in Haynes’s cinema now suffers from a bad case of academicism. By which I mean that similar to the closed, surface-driven excesses that the modernists perceived in the academic art of their predecessors, Haynes’s over-reliance on a highly decorative cinematography (which is inarguably stunning in ‘Carol’), and postured character-placements, now smacks of an idealism devoid of insight and searching content. I would even add that in the case of ‘Carol’ Lachman’s cinematography conceals the uninspired attributes of Haynes as a story-teller.
I have always found Haynes to be a clever “semiosis-addled” filmmaker; someone who has held a particular appeal among sophomore and juniors in film studies department who are equally drunk with theories of the gaze and fetishism in film. However, while in ‘Safe’ Haynes was able to keep his theory-driven proclivities under the spell of a mystery-driven narrative, in ‘Carol’, what is fully revealed is the scandal of a filmmaker in love with his own images and ideas. Even Haynes’s preferred idols- Sirk and Fassbinder- could not be accused of such an insipid transgression. The dazzling relationship between mise-en-scene, costume, and the psychological vicissitudes between Petra, Marlene, and Karin in Fassbinder’s ‘Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’ are no match for the lull that hits us in ‘Carol’. Fassbinder’s frames and camera movements were never inwardly oriented, but perplexing and often times revealing of certain harsh truths that could never be accommodated to the register of signs, symbols, and cinematographic tricks. This was a rough, uneven cinema that was not afraid of abrupt sequences and unexplained motivations. You noticed the aperture framing, windows, and doors in Fassbinder’s shots, but they were less illustrative of a style and more indicative of relationships that were challenged. Furthermore, there was an ambiguous mixture of affection and cruelty not solely among characters, but between Fassbinder and his subjects. All of this made for a viewing experience that left one with uneasy questions, silent admissions, and on occasion, a deeply compassionate undertone that never lapsed into sentimentality. We find none of this in Carter Burwell’s maudlin score and the enamored camera’s fixation on the “transgressive” desire in ‘Carol’- if it is possible to accuse a work of possessing too much mise-en-scene, then ‘Carol’ would certainly be my nominee.
And lastly, while Fassbinder and Sirk were supremely talented in creating interesting and psychologically complex characters, Haynes rests content in portraying characters as tokens of desire and sexualities. Style here points to the absence of substantive thought and commentary. Outside of the libidinal orbit that Carol and Therese inhabit, there is very little in them that captivated my interest. And this abstract idealization of the figures as emblems of Eros and desire sealed the academicism of the film’s style for me. Carol’s intrigue was superficial and it appeared of a piece with her class. Their lines are banal, and their affair devoid of humor and wit. Perhaps the worst of these instances are Haynes’s caricatured male figures, who ended up garnering more of my sympathy by virtue of their reduced and reductive presence.
It is quite possible that in the future I will revise some of my severe proclamations on ‘Carol’; but for now, I have to confess that Edward Lachman’s super 16 choreographies could not redeem the Anthony Minghellaesque boredom that fascinates Haynes.