We may see some fine-tuning in the second and later rounds, but most of the first reviews out of Cannes are rapturous. Let’s begin with Variety‘s Justin Chang: “With his groundbreaking examinations of queer identity and his fondness for the heyday of classic melodrama, Todd Haynes seemed almost too perfect a choice to film an adaptation of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s ahead-of-its-time 1952 novel about two women who boldly defied the stifling social conformity of the times. Still, even high expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of Carol, an exquisitely drawn, deeply felt love story that teases out every shadow and nuance of its characters’ inner lives with supreme intelligence, breathtaking poise and filmmaking craft of the most sophisticated yet accessible order.”
“Carol is gorgeous, gently groundbreaking, and might be the saddest thing you’ll ever see,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “More than hugely accomplished cinema, it’s an exquisite work of American art, rippling with a very specific mid-century melancholy, understanding love as the riskiest but most necessary gamble in anyone’s experience. It’s hard to imagine a director handling this project more surely than Todd Haynes, a supreme chronicler of feminine emotional pain—from Safe through Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce—who reasserts his status here as one of the greats.”
“A romance and a melodrama that is neither conventionally romantic nor cloyingly melodramatic, Carol is like a Rockwell or Hopper canvas electro-shocked into life, but supercharged with additional melancholy,” writes David Jenkins in Little White Lies. “It all happens when Cate Blanchett’s Carol, on the town and picking up last minute Christmas gifts for her wee nipper Rindy, glances across a busy department store floor and catches the enigmatic green eyes of Rooney Mara’s Therese ‘Terry’ Belivet among a menagerie of gawping toy dolls—one of which, ironically, cries for real. In Highsmith’s novel, this moment sets in motion a protracted back and forth of self-questioning and romantic second guessing, though Haynes goes straight in for the kill, swiftly expunging any ambiguity over Carol’s sexuality and Terry’s untapped lust for adventure.”
“Just occasionally,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “along with the classic echoes, Carol has the obsessive frisson of Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing and—with the flourishing of a revolver—Haynes conjures a fraught kind of Nabokovian despair and futile melodrama. It is a creamily sensuous, richly observed piece of work, handsomely detailed and furnished: the clothes, the hair, the automobiles, the train carriages, the record players, the lipstick and the cigarettes are all superbly presented. The combination of all this is intoxicating in itself.”
For Screen‘s Tim Grierson, “the movie’s most palpably expressive element is longtime Coen brothers composer Carter Burwell’s score, which is devastatingly spare and sad, recalling some of the lonely grandeur of his work on the filmmakers’ True Grit remake. Shot on film in Super 16 by frequent collaborator Ed Lachman, Carol effortlessly recalls a bygone era with a tart mixture of nostalgia and self-awareness: Haynes acknowledges the stylishness of the period (accentuated by Sandy Powell’s excellent costumes) but also recognises the silent bigotry that constantly threatens Carol’s hopes for love and happiness.”
“Kyle Chandler, as Carol’s husband Harge, is remarkably solid in an unforgiving role,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “and Sarah Paulson as Abby, the childhood friend and Carol’s ex-lover, again makes us wonder just why it is that we only ever see her in supporting roles. But you cannot take this film away from its two leads, who beneath the sparse dialogue seem to be ever communicating in a language of looks and gestures and sideways glances, a secret lovers’ morse code blinking out between them like the light at the end of Daisy’s pier.”
“Sometimes the Sirkian critique becomes sly, witty caricature, though never unfelt or unfeeling,” finds the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. “That said, Blanchett is so spectacular in a key late scene, set in a lawyer’s office, the performance becomes a different performance, and the film becomes a different, subtler, richer sort of film.”
“Mara really comes into her own in the story’s latter stages as, without overt melodrama, Therese realizes what she wants,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “Thanks largely to how Mara shapes her characterization in the home stretch, the final, dialogue-free scene is a knockout.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn agrees: “Deftly handling a role originally intended for Mia Wasikowska without an iota of overstatement, Mara brings a physical dimension to the psychological forces in play, with her distant look aptly described by Carol as ‘flung out of space.'”
Dispatching to RogerEbert.com, Barbara Scharres explains why she’s not on board: “It seems that Haynes conceives of Carol as a cipher, a Fifties style icon rather than a flesh and blood woman. Mara is a bit more animated, but nothing about the interior life of her character is illuminated by her performance. Haynes offer his audience no point of entry for identification with these characters.”
Ramin Setoodeh‘s profile of Blanchett is the cover story of the current issue of Variety. And in the Guardian, Hannah Ellis-Petersen talks with producer Elizabeth Karlsen: “Producing the film, says Karlsen, was a passion project littered with obstacles. Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay, had already spent 14 years fighting to get it made without success, and even once Karlsen convinced Highsmith’s reluctant estate to sign over the rights to her, they went through two other directors before Todd Haynes finally came on board.”
Updates: At the House Next Door, James Lattimer notes that Haynes is “constantly placing his characters behind glass, hemming them in within almost wall-to-wall medium shots, and cutting again and again to detail shots that zero in on the feelings betrayed by hands and fingers—all in all, an inobtrusively intelligent way of depicting a world where things must happen indirectly and where expansiveness is unseemly…. The bond between the women is so captivating that as the film progresses and Harge begins to turn the screws, each fresh obstacle feels heart-wrenching precisely because it carries the prospect of their faces being parted. Perhaps Haynes’s most provocative idea is to withhold the close-ups that might otherwise satiate our desire for these two entwined visages, each guarded medium shot thus requiring all the more scrutiny from the viewer.”
“I don’t know whether to credit Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, or the actors with the numerous subtle grace notes that prevent Carol from coming across like a ‘problem picture,’ even though that’s essentially what it is,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “There are some impassioned speeches in the film, but they’re far less eloquent than the moment in which Carol, having invited Therese to her house for the first time, hears Harge unexpectedly come in the front door and rushes to put on her shoes. (Both women are otherwise fully dressed and haven’t so much as touched.) That detail alone says 1952 in a way that feels organic rather than ironic.”
“Oh, what a touch of Douglas Sirk could have done for Todd Haynes’ Carol,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, where he calls it “an intelligent, but emotionally muted adaptation… Highsmith’s novel is considered unusual for the period because of its more-or-less happy ending, but Carol is almost too tactful and whispered for the romance to register as a point of release. Then again, Haynes is a smart filmmaker, and perhaps the impossibility of a genuinely fulfilling togetherness in a world like the one Therese and Carol exist in is the whole point.”
“Haynes has proved himself to be one of the very few male directors not only interested in but capable of endowing women protagonists with genuine and far-reaching complexity,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “In doing so, the performances he’s drawn from his actresses… have been amongst the very finest of their careers. These virtues are again masterfully exhibited in Carol.”
But for Adam Cook, writing for Movie Mezzanine, “there’s something undercooked here, something missing. The result is entirely adequate, but inexplicably lacking in passion…. It’s not until the film’s final sequence—an extraordinary climax that picks up the slack for what came before—that one is really convinced that the love between these characters is the matter of life and death, of imprisonment or freedom, that it is meant to be.”
“It’s such stately, evocative, confident filmmaking, the only reservation being that it’s also a bit chilly,” writes Screen‘s Tim Grierson.
“Blanchett’s joie-de-vivre meets Mara’s imploring timidity to blossom into one of the most satisfyingly heart-wrenching, bordering on misery porn, romances in years,” writes Diana Drumm at the Film Experience. More from Dave Calhoun (Time Out, 5/5) and Isabel Stevens, writing for the BFI and declaring, “This film deserves the Palme d’Or.”
Updates, 5/18: “Haynes plays for an odd middle-ground that refuses to commit to the observant distance of, say, a Stahl or Douglas Sirk, the reflexivity of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or the sensual, empathetic elisions of someone like Claire Denis, whose work a few dreamy reveries in Carol suggest,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “It is unfair and not right to compare book and movie, but I fall back on it because the movie ultimately seems to give so little of what makes these characters, this situation, and this era so rich. The book was tremendously transgressive in its time and for years after; as a film now, taking place then, as an object of art and as a popular story, it is of course no longer deviant nor even does it emphatically suggest such a thing about the women’s relationship then. So what is at stake here? Why do these two love each other so much, what is the fascination? And what, too, is Todd Hayne’s for this story? I cannot tell.”
“Carol simmers with unspoken emotion and desire, condensing volumes into the Brief Encounter-style touch of a hand on a shoulder, into the offer of a whiff of perfume on a pulse point, into Billie Holiday recordings and Carter Burwell’s expressive score,” writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. And “the film saves up an image that demonstrates how much swelling emotion it’s possible to transmit on screen without saying a word, while the indifferent world teems on. It’s magnificent.”
At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell agrees that the final sequence is “nuanced and incredibly haunting. If only the development of their relationship didn’t feel so emotionless.”
“It is exquisitely acted, hauntingly shot and meticulously well-designed,” grants Ben Croll at Twitch. “And it left me surprisingly cold.”
For Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson, Carol “wasn’t quite what I was expecting in size and scope…. But I’ve now had some time to think about it…, and the more I do that, Carol’s restraint or reserve seems to actually be in service of a pretty big point. Carol is less a movie about a particular relationship than it is a broader testament to the nobility of coming out, the struggle and dignity and value in it.”
Updates, 5/19: “Over the years, [Haynes has] set a high artistic bar for himself, and this film doesn’t advance a conversation, either about film style or homosexuality,” writes Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “He’s just rethinking camp material by excising campiness from it…. As exquisitely assembled and genuinely performed as Carol is, I watched it wondering not so much what Haynes is looking for in these period movies but what he’s hiding from.”
At PopMatters, Alex Ramon has a problem with “some of the compression and compromising that goes on at the narrative level, and the simplifying and softening of certain character details. Whether this is down to meddling hands (the Weinstein Company is among the movie’s producers) or whether Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy just wimped out a touch, the film fails to convey the deep complexities of the central relationship. Instead, it plumps for the altogether easier option of pinning the women’s difficulties firmly at the door of patriarchal and homophobic forces. These are certainly suggested in the novel, but far more central, ultimately, are the protagonists’ own (very human) quirks and inconsistencies.”
At Filmmaker, Ariston Anderson has five questions for Haynes.
Update, 5/20: “As with every one of his films, Haynes handles the material with the utmost grace and compassion, but the film feels far more flat emotionally than Far From Heaven or Velvet Goldmine,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. for the L. “Signs of a pulse perk up in the final act, which showcases just how good both actors can be when given the free reign to confront each other’s doubts honestly and cinematically.”
Updates, 5/22: Carol “is an aesthetic marvel, Haynes’s most formally controlled work yet,” writes Jordan Cronk, dispatching to Reverse Shot. “The approach yields a chamber-like ambience and uniformity of tone—an effect deepened by Blanchett and Mara as they speak in soft-spoken rhythms—which some may find tiresome, but which can prove rather hypnotic in concert with the film’s steadfast undertow of desire. Certainly these are themes that Haynes has traversed in the past, but the elegant register of Carol is far removed from the provocations of Poison and the affectionate artifice of Far from Heaven. And the film’s final scene—told only in images, as a series of exchanged glances—is one for the ages.”
For the Hollywood Reporter, Anthony D’Alessandro looks into the long gestation of this adaptation.
Update, 5/23: Stefan Grissemann in Film Comment‘s first Cannes roundtable: “I know that Haynes is criticized by some because of the texture or quality of his films, because of the emphasis that he lays on costumes and gestures, suggesting that he can be perhaps too superficial or not deep enough or cold or chilly as I’ve read in some reviews. I don’t think so at all. I think this is the perfect way to tell this particular story.”
Updates, 5/25: For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis talks with Haynes, who tells her: “As the one novel outside the crime milieu of Patricia Highsmith’s incredibly prolific career, it spoke directly to the criminal mentality in that sort of overheated hothouse of the amorous imagination that is always in a state of producing outcomes, run-ins, scenarios. What’s going to happen with the same kind of urgency and paranoia that the criminal mind weaves its webs or whatever, and I dug that. I thought it was so great and then, of course, the love itself is against the law, is a crime.”
Updates, 6/6: “When Phyllis Nagy was working as a researcher at the New York Times when she was in her early 20s, she was assigned to accompany Highsmith on a walking tour of the Greenwood Cemetery,” writes Anne Thompson. “They became friends, and thus Nagy came to know the novelist, who lived in Switzerland, in the last ten years of her life. They corresponded, and when Nagy moved to London a few years later, they saw each other more often. Highsmith suggested that Nagy, who was establishing her career as a playwright (Butterfly Kiss), should adapt one of her books.” Thompson talks with her and Haynes.
Also at Indiewire, Eric Kohn has more video: “Haynes talks about the challenge of directing a film from a script he didn’t write.”