CANNES, France — Saturday evening, as I sat in a rapidly filling theater — the Debussy, where many of the larger press screenings are held — waiting for Todd Haynes’s Carol to start, I noticed that the gent to my left had removed his shoes and socks and, file in hand, was happily sawing away at the dead skin on his feet. Ah, the glamour of Cannes! For your edification and amusement, dear reader, I tried to draw a picture of it, but doing so was as far beyond my cartooning skills as the whole scene was beyond my comprehension. Surreptitiously snapped photographic evidence will have to suffice.
If a person wanted to have sleek, presentable feet for any movie at Cannes 2015, I guess it would be Carol: This is a beautifully modulated piece of filmmaking, as smooth and cool as marble, in which one oft-lauded actress and one who is still not quite on the great-actress radar — Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara — play women who defy the rules of society, and propriety, by falling in love. Blanchett’s Carol is a suburban New Jersey housewife and mother, seeking a divorce from husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, superb as always), one of those classic 1950s providers: He’s solid and reliable, but he’s given his heart to a woman he just can’t understand. Carol has had a previous affair with a woman who is now just a friend (Sarah Paulson’s Abby), and Harge knows about it: That knowledge hangs between them like a piece of poison fruit in a fairytale — when the two argue, Harge can’t resist biting into that particular plum from Carol’s past, and its bitterness fills them both with anguish. He can’t let her go; she’s aching to go. They’ve been honest with each other, as couples need to be, but the truth has come nowhere close to setting them free.
And Carol has met someone new, Rooney Mara’s Therese, a New York department store clerk who’s striving to become a photographer. They meet when Carol, wearing a blond mink coat as pale and soft as Marilyn Monroe’s hair, swirls into the toy department where Therese has been stationed on that particular pre-Christmas day. Therese is a slip of a thing with a cautious hyphen of a smile; in the line of duty, she’s been forced to wear an unfortunate Santa hat. Therese stares in disbelief — a kind of suspended animation — when Carol drifts into view. She’s like a waft of perfume with a woman attached.
The affair barely begins as a friendship: Carol is quietly predatory, not in a deceitful way, but in the manner of a woman who has been kept too long from everything she desires. Therese, with her neat bangs and anxious brown eyes, is slightly awkward, but she’s also alert and intelligent — you immediately get the sense that she could be Carol’s undoing, rather than the other way around. And both are possessed of an almost unreal beauty. As shot by Haynes’s frequent (and great) cinematographer, Ed Lachman, their faces have a gorgeous but slightly unnatural glow — they look like softly painted store mannequin heads, believably lifelike yet hardly like people you see every day.
Carol, which is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, gives the appearance of having been constructed without seams or joints; its plot doesn’t so much move forward as drift. The film makes a fine companion piece to Haynes’s superb 2002 Far From Heaven: Both movies are about Fifties marriages that are built on nothing so clean-cut as a lie; rather, they’re about individuals who have strained to be something they’re not, not just as a way of avoiding scorn or shame, but to keep families together and to avoid causing pain to people they love. But Carol is a much cooler picture. Its emotions run deep beneath the surface, not close to the top, like easily skimmable cream. Highsmith is a chilly writer, and Haynes is a warm filmmaker: Maybe the tension between their styles is what makes Carol both compelling and elusive.
I long to see it again, partly to bask in its gorgeous production design (by Judy Becker — Carol’s car is a creamy, silver-taupe Packard, a car to swoon over), and to once again hear Carter Burwell’s tremulously sentient score, a wintry sky-wash of flutes and French horns. And don’t even get me started on the clothes, by Sandy Powell, who knows the secret power of pearl-gray wool paired with soft coral silk, or of a tomato-soup-colored tartan dressing gown. Carol is a film you want to reach out and touch, if only you could reach anywhere near the top of the pedestal it’s perched on. It is itself an unattainable love object, the goddess Venus disguised as a movie.
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Carol was very well received at the press screening I attended, and its style and craftsmanship are so assured that I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to win the Palme d’Or on Sunday. Another serious contender, one that many critics here are buzzing about, is Son of Saul, the debut picture from young Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, who has worked with Béla Tarr. A Hungarian prisoner at Auschwitz in 1944 (Géza Röhrig), charged with the job of burning the corpses of his own people, desperately searches the camp for a rabbi to pray over and bury his dead son — or, perhaps, a boy who is not his son but who represents something even more binding than blood ties. Son of Saul is extraordinarily controlled, elegant in its formality despite the grim subject matter. That’s also the thing that held me apart from it emotionally. I admire Nemes’s discretion: He refuses to put atrocities front and center — they hover at the edges of the screen, only partly glimpsed. But this is a case where a craftsman’s discipline detracts a little from the power of the story. I kept marveling at the framing and the camerawork, ultimately fixating more on the scheme than the theme. But Röhrig — this is his film acting debut — has an astonishingly expressive face. It’s part of Nemes’s plan that the camera mostly follows this character from behind; we’re supposed to feel his doggedness, the urgency of every weary step. But when the lens turns toward his face, it’s as if a flower has opened toward the sun. The movie’s earnest intentions and its artfulness are all well and good, but Röhrig gives it a soul.
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