Queer Film Fest 2020: ‘Carol’ and ‘Far From Heaven’

Today: Two of my absolute favorite melodrama queens — Carol Aird and Cathy Whitaker.

These long-suffering dames are the central characters in two of the finest films of the 21st century: Todd Haynes’ Carol and Far from Heaven. I feel certain I was ranking movies every year when Far from Heaven came out in 2002 and when Carol came out in 2015, but most of the articles I wrote for the Globe-News have disappeared into the virtual ether. It’s safe to say that both would rank at or near the top, were I to rewrite those lists. (And maybe I will after this project has run its course.)

Made about a dozen years apart, the films are companion pieces — tribute pieces to a style of filmmaking a half-century old with a fiercely modern sensibility, even a revolutionary air.

From his first film, Superstar, which told Karen Carpenter’s life story and struggle with anorexia using Barbie dolls as actors, Haynes has been a visionary director who tackles repression and nostalgia, often using a queer perspective to tell stories like they never could be before.

Far from Heaven, for example, is in many ways a queered retelling of the great Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, with Jane Wyman as a rich widow and Rock Hudson as a younger landscaper with whom she falls in love. In Haynes’ film, Julianne Moore is a neglected housewife who falls for a black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Clearly, a story that wasn’t going to be told in a mainstream Hollywood melodrama. But Haynes takes it a step further: Moore’s Cathy Whitaker is so unhappy at home because she’s discovered husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is gay.

Ooh, it’s delicious.

Haynes plays up the constraint not only of the decade in which the film was shot but also of Sirk’s worlds of artifice. For one thing, Cathy’s constantly getting onto her son for using such harsh curse words as “jeez,” so when Frank actually says “fuck” at one point, it hits like an atom bomb. On a deeper level, as critic Mitra Moin noted in Off Screen, “The use of wide angles allows the viewer to observe everything; as such, characters are unable to escape the vantage point of the camera. This suggests how trapped they are not only within their environment, but also within society.”

The auteur uses many of the same techniques in Carol, only this time, his queer characters are front and center. Working from a script by Phyllis Nagy that adapted lesbian author Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Haynes takes what was often subtext in classic Hollywood films (remember what we talked about with The Celluloid Closet?) and makes it text.

Cate Blanchett stars as the glamorous Carol Aird, who’s finally escaping an unhappy marriage (to Kyle Chandler, so you know she must be gay) when she meets the younger Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a counter girl at a department store. There’s an immediate spark between them in that oh-so-closeted way of furtive looks and glancing touches — it’s painfully good.

Again, this is a story that wouldn’t have been told in the era that Haynes is recreating, and what he does is kind of a magic trick: It’s not as doom-filled as it would have been could they actually have made the film, nor is it jarringly anachronistic. It really feels like a realistic take — granted, in a melodramatic frame — on what their twilight lives may have been like. It’s genius, really.

I could go on and on about these films, and trust me, people have (here’s a take on the use of color in Carol, and here’s one about the costuming). What I love most about them is what I find so appealing about the films of Sirk and other melodramatists: I love the push and pull of excess and constraint. And it doesn’t hurt that everything’s so damn pretty to look at.

Up next: Milk and The Times of Harvey Milk

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