Watch: Todd Haynes’ Isolated Women
One of the much-buzzed about events at the 51st Chicago International Film Festival was the spotlight screening of Todd Haynes’ latest film Carol. The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt and tells the story of the May-December relationship between two women, the young Therese (Rooney Mara) and the older, married Carol (Cate Blanchett). And while Carol adds further dimension to the Haynes LGBTQ filmography (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine), it reinforces Haynes’ recurring cinematic trope of the isolated female figure, one who is often suppressed by the societal restrictions of her time and place.
Consider, for example, the heroine of his Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven. In 1950s Connecticut, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, Haynes’ ubiquitous muse) finds herself to be the center of adoration and praise from the socialites in her suburban utopia. Cathy leads the ideal life; her husband (Dennis Quaid) is a successful company man, her house brims with beauty and warmth and Cathy herself is an ‘up and at ‘em woman of the times,’ dividing her work load between attending art shows and supporting the extracurricular activities of her kids. Once Cathy learns that her husband is a closeted homosexual, her picturesque life unravels internally—but for the sake of social upkeep she has to exude the familiar facade of familial normalcy (by the standards of that era anyway) on the outside. To make matters even more strenuous, she is coldly criticized by her peers once she embarks on a friendship with her African American landscaper Raymond Deagan (Dennis Halbert). And through all this, with music and art direction from the era, Far From Heaven never really falls into campy 50s melodrama. The brilliance of Haynes’ direction comes in its simplicity of staging; often his heroines are exposed quietly by judging third-party characters who simply stare at them; other times, these female protagonists become transparent beings in the frame, becoming more helpless as they fall into self doubt or defeat. It’s a subtly piercing yet bold choice in today’s kinetic moviemaking canon.
Haynes, a Brown University graduate who majored in semiotics, reminds us that some of the strongest works of art come from the minimalist approach and by presenting us images of genuine pathos; we are forced to find a little bit of ourselves in those moments of introspection or grief. And in the films where Haynes does embellish a a flashy visual style (e.g. the different color palettes in the Bob Dylan experimental biopic I’m Not There
), those choices are always grounded in the intense proximity and affinity he shares for the isolation felt by his screen protagonists. This was evident in one of Hayne’s early works, the 43-minute short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
, which Haynes shot using barbie dolls in dollhouses and occasionally mixing in archival footage and music from The Carpenters discography. Here is the most potent case for Haynes’ theme of the isolated female figure: In presenting an unauthorized biopic on Karen Carpenter’s anorexia and untimely death using barbie dolls as the main actors, Haynes’ made a masterstroke comment on the cultural pressures placed on women from an early age. Carpenter was 32 years old when she died, and her death brought a bigger spotlight to eating disorders; so by using the barbie doll—the paramount cultural signifier for what “beauty” meant to little girls everywhere—as the main screen figure, Haynes stripped a tragic story to its elementary roots, transforming children’s play into a twisted, unnerving parable of isolation and depression. There’s a generosity in that filmmaking gesture of simplicity, an invite from a perceptive artist who dares us to expose our vulnerability collectively as an audience. An audience of isolated individuals, yearning to come together once the theatre lights go down.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOWwhich boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.