Todd Haynes's new film Carol — opening November 20 in the U.S. — is more straightforward and more hopeful than anything the genre-bending queer director has made in his nearly two decades of filmmaking. The film follows Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), tracing their cautious, circuitous movements toward each other during the anxious McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Unlike Haynes's first major release, Safe (1995), which engages tropes from sci-fi, horror, and melodrama to unnerving effect, and 2007's I'm Not There, in which six actors (including Blanchett) portray different facets of Bob Dylan, Carol can come across as almost ordinary. But its mundanity is a source of its political power, since its depiction of a kind of ordinary love turns out — even still — to be politically radical.
While Haynes's movies tell stories of individuals, he actually isn't much interested in individuals — that is to say, paragons of personal agency who are basically independent from the world around them; the kinds of (usually male) protagonists we often see on-screen. Instead, Haynes shows us the various ways that individuals suffer under the weight of the world and the different ways that weight lives within us, often right in our bodies.
For instance, in Safe, the main character, a subdued suburban-California housewife, begins to develop inexplicable physical symptoms, and she withdraws from her life to join an isolated wellness commune. In Superstar (1987), a deeply moving biopic about Karen Carpenter with all the characters played by Barbie dolls, Carpenter becomes severely anorexic in an effort to achieve some minor control over her increasingly controlled life, an effort as painfully self-destructive as it is perversely effective. And in I'm Not There, Bob Dylan is shown to literally take new corporeal form throughout his life, as though each new phase called forth a new person from within him.
What makes Haynes's films so subtle and challenging is that these bodily experiences are presented not only as modes of passive suffering but also as modes of resistance. This active resistance is seen especially in the way that gender and sexuality are reimagined by the characters in Velvet Goldmine, a vibrant yet melancholy musical homage to glam rock, an electric moment in the history of youth culture that is shown to celebrate queerness and gender nonconformity while it continues to subtly police them.
In all his films, Haynes turns again and again to women — whether women by birth or identification or social designation — as a site where the forming and deforming force of the world is most powerfully seen and felt. He tends to focus on mid-20th-century women of social standing and means, white women hovering around the middle class (often thanks to the positions of their husbands), women who seem to have about as much opportunity and personal freedoms as they've ever known. Julianne Moore's characters in both Safe and Far From Heaven have every financial and material comfort, the whole world apparently organized precisely for their easy, pacified enjoyment.
Yet Haynes presents these women as trapped. He frames his characters in cloistered interiors where they're unable to take up space: positioned to the side of a shot, all but edged out of sight and existence; or, recalling Moore's thin, breathy voice, coughing fits, and panic attacks in Safe, as unable to speak or take a breath at all. The worlds of Haynes's women are worlds to be suffered and endured. He very rarely shows a way out of these worlds, and when he does, it is revealed to be a false freedom, another trap.