Down to her last cigarette

Todd Haynes, Phyllis Nagy and Cate Blanchett on Carol.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Todd Haynes on Cate Blanchett as Carol:
Todd Haynes on Cate Blanchett as Carol: "Smoking is the perfect sort of conductor of desire …"

At the Carol press conference inside the JW Marriott Essex House, on Central Park South, attended by Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson and Jake Lacy, director Todd Haynes connected smoking to Hollywood's Golden Age Cinema. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy spoke about Patricia Highsmith's dislike of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train and fondness for Robert Walker and Alain Delon in René Clément's Plein Soleil (Purple Noon).

Carol, adapted from Highsmith's The Price Of Salt, costumes by Sandy Powell (The Wolf Of Wall Street), music by Carter Burwell (Anomalisa), cinematography by Ed Lachman (Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love, Paradise: Faith, Paradise: Hope) had its World Premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and was screened in the 53rd New York Film Festival last month.

Carol dancing with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler)
Carol dancing with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler)

Love stories are about "conquering the subject," Haynes said at the press conference, a stone's throw away from the Oak Room, which plays a pivotal role in Carol; and that for him this is a film about "looking and being looked at."

Therese (Mara), an aspiring photographer, while working Christmas shifts at a department store, spots Carol (Blanchett), a breathtaking, elegantly dressed woman, across the toy department, where the latter is shopping for a gift for her young daughter. The year is 1952, Carol is going through a complicated divorce from her husband Harge (Chandler) and the women's friendship and ensuing love story could be used against Carol in the custody hearings.

One of the many details that ring so true and makes Haynes' film such a mille-feuille of meanings is the way smoking functions to drive the plot and reveal conflicting desires instead of being a mere signifier of times gone by. "Just when you think it doesn't get any worse, you run out of cigarettes," is a line Carol says, that all ex-smokers understand.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There are some very interesting moments that speak of addiction that almost counter the desire. The smoking moments I am talking about. One where Carol desperately wants a cigarette. Could you talk about how smoking comes in? There is another moment when a woman is hiding her smoking. They all have their secrets.

Todd Haynes: Smoking is the perfect sort of conductor of desire because it's a way in which you seek desire and you never fulfill it. So it's this practiced - I mean, I know this from being an ex-smoker - we talked about this - it's a practiced sort of cycle where you seek being satisfied. You crave that moment but you're always chasing an original moment that you never get back to in that cigarette. And so, of course, it's played a key symbolic role in the history of Hollywood Golden Age Cinema and the history of films about women. The ways in which anxieties and desires are displaced into other kinds of practices. I don't see it as much more than that in this film.

Carol US poster at Essex House
Carol US poster at Essex House Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Kyle Chandler: But that was a great description!

Phyllis Nagy added some insight about her friend Patricia Highsmith's reaction to the movies made from her novels.

Phyllis Nagy: She [Highsmith] didn't like many of the film adaptations of her work.

Cate Blanchett jumps in: Didn't she?

Phyllis Nagy: Oh, no. She couldn't stand them. Especially Strangers On A Train.

Cate Blanchett in protest: Oh, what does she know!

Phyllis Nagy: The guys trade murders in that book. In the film, of course, they don't. And it was one of the first arguments we had when I said "Oh, I love Strangers On A Train." She said, "Hmm, really?" With disgust! But she liked aspects of the films. Robert Walker she loved and she thought Alain Delon was extremely attractive, of course. So I hope that she would find this entire enterprise [Carol] extremely attractive. I think she would. I think that all of us were not betraying the intent in the tone of her work, which really, I think, is the only thing that you can do to be reverent to a source material. Everything else is up for grabs.

Coming up, a conversation with Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen, two of the producers of Carol.

Carol opens in the US on November 20 and in the UK on November 27.

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