It’s not often that you hear a room full of film critics erupt into bravos after the screening of a movie. In fact, in my second decade of coming to Cannes, I’ve rarely heard such an overwhelming response.
But that’s what happened Saturday night, with the world premiere of U.S. director Todd Haynes’ 1950s lesbian melodrama, “Carol.”
Haynes has often been described as a modern-day Douglas Sirk, who specialized in exploring social issues in the 1950s with such films as “Imitation of Life.”
But Haynes, in my opinion, has far surpassed Sirk with “Carol.”
The most obvious achievement is Cate Blanchett’s performance, which is absolutely flooring in its brilliance. A lot of Americans see Meryl Streep as our greatest living actress. And she’s certainly great. But with “Carol,” I think Blanchett has achieved something that few actresses have matched in history.
The supporting performances from Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson are also jaw-dropping. So is the screenplay by Phyllis Nagy. Cinematographer Ed Lachman captures 1950s New York and the luminosity of Blanchett with every frame. Judy Becker .seems assured an Oscar nomination for her production design — flawlessly re-creating the period. Everything is superlative.
The story opens with Carol (Blanchett) shopping in New York for a Christmas present for her daughter. She meets a sales clerk named Therese (Mara), and there’s an unexpected spark between them. They meet for coffee. They start having occasional dinners. They begin to have serious, friendly conversations. And it seems clear that the two are headed for romance, even though 1950s New York society is hardly ready for such a match.
To complicate matters, Carol is estranged from her wealthy husband Harge (Chandler). He wants custody of their child, and he seems prepared to stop at nothing to get custody — or force Carol to come back to him. But Carol resists, inviting Therese on a trip that will have explosive consequences.
The development of the relationship is tastefully handled, and it’s interesting to watch an increasing awareness in the younger Therese, as she begins to see the possibility of a life that doesn’t conform to social norms. But the older Carol must pave the way, especially when she becomes embroiled in a legal battle for custody. She has momentous choices to make.
It’s not at all easy, and Carol momentarily betrays herself and Therese. But as the movie plays out, we get one of the strongest statements for individuality and human diversity that’s ever put on the big screen.
I’m not sure how the jury will view the film, but I can’t imagine that Haynes will leave the festival without a major award. In short, “Carol” is a masterpiece.