Formal experimentation and challenging social commentary are the creative signatures of director Todd Haynes. He opted, after all, for six different actors to portray the public personas of Bob Dylan in his 2007 film “I’m Not There.”
The central concern of Haynes, an openly gay filmmaker, is oppressive moral authoritarianism on the lives of those who don’t conform to gendered or sexual expectations.
In “Carol,” Haynes’ sixth feature, he puts forth a striking and distinctive vision. It is based on a 1952 chronicle of a lesbian affair, a shocker of the era published under a pseudonym by crime novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose nearly 30 published volumes of fiction have produced such unnerving films as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
The new film, opening Friday in the Twin Cities, stars Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara as married, upper-class Carol and shop girl Therese — closeted lesbians in love. The look of the pitch-perfect period film could be mistaken for an Eisenhower-era romantic women’s picture. Haynes, renowned for his homages to the history of cinema, began work on the film with a rich research process. In this case, there were references to key films like “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s 1945 movie about English suburban life.
“I was looking for what they told me about the love story as a genre,” Haynes said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities.
“And it was really informative and useful to Cate and Rooney to watch these things,” Haynes said. Women of the time exhibited “a kind of codified femininity that’s contained with a decorum to it. They didn’t behave like any woman you would know today except maybe your grandmother.”
Highsmith’s novel contains notes unspoken by the characters but charged with meaning, observations like “Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh.”
Haynes said he intended to create the film in parallel form. He aimed for performances light on dialogue but expressive by “hiring magicians” for the roles.
“A lot of what we did in rehearsal was removing lines,” he said. “We wanted not to clutter it up. Rooney would be saying ‘Does she need to say that?’ and I would say, ‘You’re so right.’ That’s not always the case with actors, some of who love to talk and add things.”
His performers were thrilled by the challenge of working in a different way “to distill down the information,” Haynes said.
Though it is set more than half a century in the past, Haynes feels the film is still worth telling today.
“Love stories require an obstacle between the lovers, something that keeps them from one another. You have to yearn for the love that can’t be fulfilled. And it gets harder to conceive of viable cultural or racial or sexual obstacles between people as we move forward progressively.
“I felt ‘Brokeback Mountain’ re-imbued the love story with an authentic and unquestionable series of obstacles that these men faced. I think that’s certainly true for ‘Carol,’ as well.”