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“A Minimalism of the Frame”: Filming the Female Face in Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015)

In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a […]

Todd Haynes’s Carol 2015 Photo: courtesy The Weinstein Company

Todd Haynes’s Carol, 2015 Photo: Weinstein Company

In the opening scene of Carol, the camera follows a young man called Jack (Trent Rowland) through the streets of 1950s Manhattan and into a restaurant. Jack chats with the bartender briefly, then recognizes someone he knows across the room. The camera shifts to Jack’s point of view, and we see he is watching a table for two, where a blonde woman whose face we can see looks intently at a brunette whose back is turned to us. “Therese!” calls Jack, and the brunette (Rooney Mara) turns to the camera. “I thought that was you!” Jack bellows good-naturedly, and he approaches the two women. Once he arrives, the camera descends to the eye level of the seated women, and during the ensuing dialogue the camera is trained exclusively on their faces. Jack babbles away, animated and oblivious, but his face literally does not make the cut. We can see his body up to his mouth, but no higher. We hear his speech, but our attention is directed by the camera’s gaze to the women’s faces. There, we witness a play of emotions, one often at odds with Jack’s cheery tone. Therese looks startled and disoriented, Carol (Cate Blanchett) intent and melancholy. Jack, by contrast, is so bold, so confident in his own goodwill and that of the world, so sure that it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt these women at their meal, which has obviously been tense and intimate.

Everything about Jack is wrong for this scene, and so Haynes removes him from it as much as possible. The audience needs nothing of Jack save his dialogue. He is irrelevant to the proceedings except as a stimulus for the tacit drama he does not notice in Therese’s eyes and Carol’s passive-aggression. This all transpires less then three minutes into the film, and the audience has scarcely been introduced to these women when already we find ourselves wanting to be alone with them, disgruntled at his intrusion, thinking: Jack, just go away. It’s important to make special note of two facts here. First, the POV shot where Jack glimpses Therese across the restaurant is the only shot from a male character’s perspective in the entire film. Second, this same scene is repeated again near the end of Carol, and when it is, Jack’s POV shot is replaced with a close-up of Therese at the moment he calls her name.

In the Carol clip shown during this winter’s Walker Dialogue and Retrospective Series: Todd Haynes: 20 Years of Killer Films, you’ll notice that as the director cuts between over-the-shoulder shots of Therese and Carol, the waiter is, like Jack in that first scene, cropped at the upper lip. Except for the essential bits of dialogue and the hands that deliver the martinis and creamed spinach, the waiter is for all other intents and purposes not there. Later, Therese fights with her would-be fiancé, Richard (Jake Lacy) over the course of one long roving shot, and Haynes’s camera tracks them through her apartment in such a manner that Richard’s face is almost never visible—and, when it is, it’s out of focus. In fact, Haynes goes to great lengths to avoid featuring men’s faces directly in Carol. Dialogues between men and women visually favor the women, and men are sometimes refused reaction shots altogether, an editing bias that amounts to a major disruption of standard cinematic grammar. The only reason this isn’t immediately jarring for the viewer is the fact that there are plenty of conventionally edited dialogues in Carol – it’s just that those scenes, by and large, consist of women speaking with women.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company

These decisions are, of course, not accidents. In the Walker Dialogue, Haynes discusses his early fascination with what he terms a “minimalism of the frame” in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), mentioning in particular a remarkable shot from that film’s graduation party episode. As Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock moves distractedly through his own party, Nichols keeps the camera trained tightly on his face. Hands reach from out of frame to pinch his cheeks; faces pulls themselves in to kiss Benjamin; conversations are had with people outside of or just within the camera’s field of vision. Nichols uses the shot to effectively communicate Benjamin’s feelings of social isolation and emotional claustrophobia, demonstrating that visual exclusion has emotional and narrative consequences. Haynes’s filmography evinces a second lesson: to tell a story on film, all one really needs to show is a human face.

Haynes says in the Walker Dialogue that “the spectator has these extraordinary powers of desire to enter the story, and fill it in emotionally, and to make it come alive. … All of the emotion that we think the movie is giving us, we’re giving the movie.” In his work, the human face is the site of this special cinematic identification. Sometimes, he admits, he has “interrupted that process [and] set up boundaries to identifying with a character,” as in 1995’s Safe, where Julianne Moore’s Carol is constantly situated at the dead center of the frame and yet remains chillingly vacant, “hard to find, locate.” However, Safe’s extreme efforts to subvert the audience-character relationship only belies its centrality to Haynes’s instincts and ethos as a filmmaker. Safe also reminds us that Haynes’s Nichols-esque “minimalism of the frame” is no mere directorial tenet. Rather, it is a principle of collaboration between actor and director. Haynes states that his actors are a major reason for his career’s longevity, and this is evident in Safe, whose success depends on Moore’s uncanny performance as much as the director’s compositional genius.

Carol is the positive to Safe’s negative (coincidentally, their major characters share a name). It likewise puts immense pressure on the faces of its female stars, but unlike the passive Carol of Safe, who is overwhelmed and eventually consumed pathogenically, visually, and narratively by her own environment, Carol’s protagonists make themselves exceptionally available to the audience. Haynes’s camera colludes with Mara and Blanchett to ensure that the audience is dependent on this opening-up, this invitation to connection. We look to their prominently displayed faces over and over so that we can know how to understand what’s going on. Haynes’s compositions admit men only insofar as they are relevant to that story, and the definitive interpretation of events always falls to Therese or Carol (or, in one scene, Sarah Paulson’s Abby). Carol is a housewife subject to legal coercion and intimidation by her husband, and Therese is only 19, and in one memorable double entendre claims she doesn’t “even know what to order for lunch.” They are not necessarily prepared for these narrative responsibilities, but they learn on the go, in order to resist mounting pressure from the men around them to tell a particular story in a particular way.


Todd Haynes with Cate Blanchett on the set of Carol. Photo: Weinstein Company

Therese is trying to become a photographer, so we get numerous shots of Therese taking photographs, many of them of Carol, and sometimes we see from the perspective of Therese’s camera itself. To underscore the metaphorical implication—Therese as filmmaker, discovering her vision, sexuality, and agency all at once—Haynes also includes, as he points out in the interview, “all of these shots … through glass, and reflections, and windows, where the act, and it’s almost the lens itself, the act of looking is foregrounded, because it’s all about desire and who’s on what side of that looking.” It for this reason that the man who poses the greatest direct threat to Therese and Carol as they embark on their westward road trip is not Carol’s domineering husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) but the private detective Harge hires to track them, Tommy Tucker (Cory Michael Smith). Tommy’s glasses and tape recorder also figure him as a filmmaker, positioning him as someone with the power to combat or even eliminate Therese and Carol’s agency as women. When she discovers Tommy, Carol aims a revolver at him, and in this moment only Haynes brutally crops her out of the image, so that all we can see of her is that arm and hand holding the weapon. We cannot see her face, and the narrative slips out of her control in this moment. “There’s nothing you can do,” Tommy says within this same shot, and it’s true. The gun is unloaded. The Iowa town where this confrontation takes place is called Waterloo. “Isn’t that awful?” Carol says, and it is.

It could be said that Carol is, on one level at least, a film about men trying to get the last word. Richard tells Therese repeatedly that he loves her, though she never reciprocates, and talks incessantly about a trip to Paris to which she has not agreed, as though he could speak their romance into reality. Harge more literally attempts to have the final say by suing for custody of Carol’s young daughter. As Abby cuttingly observes, he’s “spent the last ten years trying to make sure [Carol’s] only point of reference is himself.” But most films are about men trying to get the last word, and most of the time, they’re successful; in fact, they’re successful here, since Harge does win his custody suit. However, despite this, and despite the film’s conventional surface appearances, it remains the work of a founder of the 1990s’ New Queer Cinema whose films have never been anything short of socially and formally challenging: here, Haynes mobilizes Nichols’s “minimalism of the frame” to undo Harge’s success, to “speak … separately or parallel to” that other story (as he says in a different context). In Carol, a visual work in ethos as well as form, images trump words, even the coveted last word. Demonstrating his trademark trust in his cast’s artistry, Haynes zeroes in once more on the female face as the locus of emotive communication between movie and moviegoer. “May I speak?” asks Carol caustically in the climactic showdown with Harge and his lawyers. Although the men technically oblige, they persist in interrupting her, shouting over her, and even suggesting that her testimony be stricken from the court record. That’s all right, because Haynes and Blanchett give Carol something better than the opportunity tell her story: she has the power to show it.

So it is that Carol concludes with Therese and Carol looking at one another, not speaking, a series of emotions flickering across each of their faces. The crowd of men with whom Carol is dining chatter away inaudibly. It’s a fitting summary of the film’s quiet rebellion.

Todd Haynes’s Carol screens January 19 as part of the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards Screenings.


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