CANNES, FRANCE — Forbidden love is the theme of Todd Haynes’ stunning new romantic drama Carol, but nothing’s holding back the affection this picture is receiving—and deserving — at Cannes.
Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as fugitive lovers in the repressive America of the 1950s, the film screened here Saturday night to international press prior to Sunday’s world premiere at the Palais des Festivals.
It was greeted with applause and tweeted raves from the critics in the Debussy Theatre, arguably the world’s toughest audience. Movies are often simultaneously birthed and smothered in the Debussy. It happened Friday night when Gus Van Sant’s thuddingly melodramatic The Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe, was greeted with a chorus of boos as the final credits rolled.
Carol had a much happier fate. Based on the ecstatic reactions to the film, it looks a serious prospect for the Palme d’Or at the festival’s end, and later Oscar nominations, beginning with Best Picture and including (but not limited to) nods for director, actress and supporting actress.
Everything just clicks into place for this gorgeous cinematic achievement. Shot on 16 mm film for authentic colours and textures by cinematographer Ed Lachman, the film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian cult-novel The Price of Salt, said to have inspired Nabokov’s Lolita.
Blanchett, 46, and Mara, 30, dress and act like opposing figures from movie lore: Blanchett looks to be a femme-fatale type from film noir and Mara strongly resembles Audrey Hepburn at her most fragile.
Yet they make for a love-at-first-sight match so intense that when each of them says at different points “I’m starving,” you know they’re not really talking about food. When clothes are finally doffed in one censor-daring sex scene — more about that in a moment — the screen seems as if it is about to melt.
Blanchett is Carol Aird, a middle-aged, affluent and forthright New Jersey housewife and mother who falls for Mara’s Therese Belivet, a young, scrimping and timid salesclerk she meets while Christmas shopping for a doll for her daughter in a Manhattan department store.
The immediate and mutual spark between them is a surprise to both women, especially Therese, but both have bothersome men in their lives: Carol is in the midst of divorcing her husband (Kyle Chandler) and Therese is uncertain of her love for her boyfriend (Jack Lacy). An impetuous decision to take a road trip west will have fateful and far-reaching consequences.
That Carol and Therese would enter into a relationship, tentatively at first and then passionately, may not seem so dramatic a development in 2015. But consider the punitive early 1950s America that Carol and Therese live in: homosexuality is considered a crime and a legally invoked “morality clause” could deny Carol access to her daughter.
Carol is set in the distant past, but the film clearly speaks to current times, where advances in homosexual rights are still being fought for on a place-by-place and law-by-law basis.
This point was driven home in the press conference Sunday afternoon, where Blanchett noted that more than 70 countries around the world still ban homosexuality. Even in the U.S., where gay marriage is allowed in many states, there are still major laws and prejudices against same-sex couples.
“We’re living in deeply conservative times, and if you think otherwise, then you’re very foolish,” Blanchett said.
It’s also still a difficult time for filmmakers and actors who want to make female-filmed movies, she added, elaborating on her call for greater gender equity made during the 2014 Academy Awards telecast, after winning Best Actress for her role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.
There are recent signs the situation is improving, Blanchett said, Carol being one of them. But she expressed the hope that the progress “is not just some fashionable moment for women.”
The tastefully rendered sex and nudity in Carol could run afoul of censors in the U.S. and conservatives in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the latter being the group believed to have denied Brokeback Mountain a Best Picture prize in 2005 because of its frank depiction of gay romance.
But Haynes, who previously explored societal taboos with Far From Heaven and TV’s Mildred Pierce mini-series, said he’s confident that Carol will be released this fall without cuts to the version screened at Cannes. He also sees no obstacle to its Oscar chances.
As for the nudity in Carol, mother-of-four Blanchett laughed and said “certainly since giving birth” she’s felt less inhibited about baring all, especially when it’s for a scene as crucial as this one.
Her co-star Mara had even fewer qualms: “I’m nude quite often, so it was no big deal for me,” she said with a smile.
Blanchett also used the occasion of the press conference to knock down the suggestion in a recent magazine interview that she’s had multiple lesbian relationships in her real life.
She clarified the situation by saying that while she’s had multiple relationships with women, none of them were sexual, “but in 2015, the answer should be, ‘Who cares?’”
MUSICAL TRAGEDY: Few musical rise-and-fall stories match the tragedy of Amy Winehouse, the British jazz songbird who rose to prominence early this century, won six Grammys, and then succumbed to alcohol poisoning in July 2011, at the fateful age of 27.
It’s all there, and painful to watch, in the documentary Amy by Asif Kapadia (Senna) that also premiered at Cannes in this female-dominated weekend.
He expertly stitches together much previously unseen footage of Winehouse and her own words — in voice and via on-screen handwritten lyrics — to show just how much songs like “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” mirrored her life and emotions.
The film begins with a 15-year-old Amy joyfully singing “Happy Birthday” at a family event in 1998, and follows along on her roller-coaster ride to fame, fortune and infamy, when alcohol, heroin and other drugs increasingly became her crutch for coping with fame.
At one point early in the doc, another obvious Oscar candidate here at Cannes, a pre-fame Winehouse says to an interviewer that becoming a celebrity wouldn’t suit her self-destructive nature, which also included bouts with bulimia: “I don’t think I could handle it. I would probably go mad.”
There are many sad moments in Amy, not least of which is her visible deterioration from a striking siren of beehive hair and cat’s-eye makeup into a skeletal figure of pity.
But the worst moments of all have to be watching all the men who used her for personal gain: her manoeuvring father Mitch Winehouse, her heroin-enabling husband Blake Fielder-Civil and even guys like Jay Leno, who first welcomed her to perform on The Tonight Show and then started using her for cheap laughs in his monologue.
As Winehouse sings in her song “What Is It About Men”: My destructive side has grown a mile wide / And I question myself again: what is it ‘bout men?”
Kapadia’s illuminating, compassionate and tragic doc goes way up and way, way down with the gone-too-soon Amy Winehouse.