Carol and Therese

Carol-rScreenshot from trailer for Carol, directed by Todd Hayne.

The new Todd Hayne movie Carol has arrived and I can state that it’s a photographer’s film.

The story is a love affair between two women in early 1950s New York, a time when gay and lesbian romance was seen as a moral lapse, or worse. The implications in this for danger and secrecy, and the teasing development of their attraction, finds its visual expression in the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Ed Lachman.

In preparing for the film’s visual style Hayne and Lachman studied early 1950s still photography, looking for the right colour palette and focal qualities. They looked at women photographers of the time including Esther Bubley, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt and Ruth Orkin, but they found their principal reference in the work of Saul Leiter, an abstract painter and colleague of De Kooning, who had taken up photography and flourished.

Leiter’s beautiful Kodachromes captured the compression and layering of the Manhattan streetscape. He shot through shadows, blurs and reflections to capture the great cities ambiguity and mystery, and its poetry.

In the movie, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (both also Oscar-nominated for the film) are seen through a variety of obstacles, glimpsed in longshot, shrouded in shadow, and overlayed by reflections. It creates a rich visual texture which helps carry the film forward, rather like a writer’s literary style  creates the right atmosphere for the events in a novel. 

Lachman’s compositions as expert as Leiter’s, despite his assertion that he’s a cine photographer and not a still photographer. The movie was shot on film, in Super 16, not 35mm, to create “a certain emotional quality — you’re viewing the character through the texture of the grain but also feeling their emotions through the grain.”

One further pleasure for readers of blogs like this is that the character of Therese is a budding photographer herself, and we see her with cameras of the time and even in a picture conference at the New York Times where she works. Her interest in photography is not a casual plot point, it’s the perfect analogy for her character, discrete and watchful, her beautiful big eyes like camera lenses.

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