The grain in “Carol” matters because Haynes and Lachman force 16-mm. film stock to reveal the extreme range of its expressive possibilities. The viewing of the film becomes a sort of extreme experience, all the more so for its concentration of the movie’s central dramatic elements in its performances and in the composition of its images.
Sitting far back, I saw the artifice in the actresses’ glacial, theatrical precision. Up close, their performances deliver a tremulous, tensile control, a precision that shivers with the passions straining to break out just below the surface—the surface of behavior, the surface of decorum, the surface of the skin. I don’t think that the subcutaneous frissons result from the actors’ performances but, rather, from Haynes’s performance-capture by means of Lachman’s grainy images. They’re not effects of the actors’ skin but of its appearance on the second skin of the film stock (the French word for “film” is “pellicule,” meaning little skin), which lends the actors’ theatricalized immobility an illusion of shivers.
Richard Brody on Carol. What a beautiful observation on the grain of the 16mm film stock on Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara's skin as symbolic of the irrepressible (if socially forbidden) passion beneath the surface. I once heard a director once refer to 16mm film grain as looking like golf balls copulating furiously, though I could not have predicted that metaphor tumbling out of my memory during a movie about a lesbian romance in mid-century America.
I was concerned going into Carol that the trio of director Todd Haynes and actresses Blanchett and Mara would be a menage a trots executed with such calculated precision that all passion would be suffocated. Blanchett is so technically gifted an actor it seems she can control the fluttering of each individual eyelid, and Mara has a certain stillness of gaze that always renders her face a mystery.
I was pleasantly surprised. It's not that the movie isn't recognizably Haynes'. There may always be an element of his work that is cool to the touch. But here he channels Wong Kar-Wai at times to turn the physical world, in particular its surfaces and barriers, into the inner surfaces of his actors. In that, what is 16mm film if not just one more layer on the canvas?
Another 2015 movie, Hou Hsiao Hsien's Assassin, came to mind. It, too, was replete with shots filmed through surfaces like gauzy fabric to remind us how emotions cloud our perceptions of another person.
Two moments in Carol, in particular, grabbed my heart and squeezed. One is a speech in an office, with divorce attorneys present. I know some find Blanchett's technical mastery a bit distancing, but this is one of the most moving moments I can remember from her. The other is a walk across a restaurant. Little happens, but everything does. I held my breath.
The movie doesn't try too hard to explain their attraction for each other. Love can be like that. It comes in an instant, almost like a whim, and then can linger forever.