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Still from "Carol"Courtesy of Studiocanal UK

Carol is this year’s most devastatingly romantic film

With Carol, director Todd Haynes has crafted the most sensitive, heartbreakingly passionate movie of the year

Among the many rich pleasures of Todd Haynes’ Carol is a secret language shared by two women whose lesbian romance is forbidden by 50s America. Carol and Therese, played immaculately by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, speak in shoulder brushes and lingering looks, until they have no option but to run away together. “What a strange girl you are,” Carol observes, “flung out of space.” Such is the magic of their connection, deemed illegal and shameful by society, only sci-fi terminology will suffice.

The lovestruck leads of Carol join Todd Haynes’ iconic band of outsiders, from Julianne Moore’s alienated housewives in Safe and Far from Heaven, the literal Barbie doll of Superstar, to the many Bob Dylans of I’m Not There. Considering Haynes is synonymous with New Queer Cinema and crafts a contemporary edge with his period pieces, he seemed an ideal fit for Carol – and he’s more than proved it with what’s surely the year’s most devastatingly romantic film.

We spoke to Haynes in detail about one of the key scenes from Carol, as well as the value of creating anxiety for the viewer, his favourite special effect, and how music can sometimes be a film’s leading character.

This lunch scene sets up so much of the film. Where is it?

Todd Haynes:
We shot it on location in Cincinnati. The secret name we made up for the restaurant is Scotti’s, based on a place we loved that wasn’t quite for the scene. It’s really where the women first have time getting to know each other. We approached the scene framed through Therese’s point of view and her experience having this elegant older woman respond to her.

When Therese gulps, it’s some excellent food acting.

Todd Haynes:
Yes! It’s a great food moment that was not scripted or planned. They’re eating creamed spinach with a poached egg and two martinis – a perfect Carol 1952 lunch. Both Cate and Rooney talk about the shooting of this scene as one they remember fondly because we got to settle down and have more time with it, whereas the rest of the shoot was very hectic. It gave us the chance to pay attention to the small things in character and gesture, the silences and little accidents like that – a little bit of food coming out of Rooney’s mouth that she puts back in.

“Love stories need to have these obstacles between the lovers, or there’s no conflict or yearning. Brokeback Mountain was the 60s. There would be viable reasons why men like that couldn’t be together today in the United States. So you wouldn’t have to go back to the 60s for that” – Todd Haynes

The silences between them are very warm, but do you think they’re also awkward?

Todd Haynes:
To me, it is fairly awkward. I mean, Carol seems fairly comfortable in her skin – although one wonders how much of a performed version of herself she has perfected at this point in her life. There’s a slight neurotic quality to Carol – how she starts smoking a cigarette in the department store. There’s that moment where she drifts off in the restaurant after Therese says, “I don’t even know what to order for lunch.” Carol’s mind just starts to wander. Therese is left hanging there. You just don’t know exactly what any of this means. It’s one of those moments that are more frequent in the novel. Since it’s in film, everything is more economical and there’s less places for things like that, but I think it’s really an important moment.

Carol is very free of irony. Do you have to go back to the 50s to do a sincere love story?

Todd Haynes:
You at least have to go places where the obstacles between people feel viable. Love stories need to have these obstacles between the lovers, or there’s no conflict or yearning. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the 50s. Brokeback Mountain was the 60s. That film, because it’s about these cowboys who fall in love, there would be viable reasons why men like that couldn’t be together today in the United States. So you wouldn’t have to go back to the 60s for that.

Sometimes the characters can’t say anything, and Carter Burwell’s score speaks for them. Did you want the music to work that way?

Todd Haynes:
Yes, I love the harp that Carter uses in Carol, which is almost the rhythmic element of it. It pulses at the end of this restaurant scene. It’s plucking the bass notes of the melody, but it’s also what he uses as the rhythmic component for the main theme. It feels like the kind of palpitations of the heart, that plucking harp. And then it goes into double-time, the way your heart races around desire. It’s true, especially in these domestic stories where the female characters don’t always have access to language or power of any kind. There’s a limit to what they know how to say, or even what they understand of their own feelings – particularly with Cathy in Far from Heaven. That’s why the music in Far from Heaven is almost the lead character of the film.

You did something similar with Cate in I’m Not There when she mimes to Stephen Malkmus – he’s my favourite musician, but even I was surprised by how well that worked. How did you come up with that combination?

Todd Haynes:
I’ve known him a little bit over the years, and I’ve seen him perform. I just think he’s so great and has an amazing voice, let alone everything else – his writing, Pavement, the Jicks, everything. I can’t remember if he and Cate ever met, but I’d love to have a picture of them together. I felt like, he’s lanky and tall and skinny, the way Cate is. He was completely game, and I just knew he would be such a perfect voice for that character.

I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article praising Carol for having such a dramatic vomit scene, but I really meant it, and there’s another heartbreaking example in Safe. Do you see a lot of value in presenting these physical moments from restrained characters?

Todd Haynes:
Oh yeah, when you get this propulsive liquid coming out of them? (laughs) Actors like Rooney know that those kind of physical opportunities reveal something in the character that can’t come out any other way, so they really embrace them. When Cate vomits in I’m Not There, we had a thing that shot it out, but you couldn’t really tell.

When Julianne vomits in Safe, it was a whole trick. It was my favourite special effect. It’s all in one shot. He’s just put all this cologne on in the bathroom and she says, “Oh Greg, I’m so sorry,” They hug, she starts to squirm, and then she pushes him away and throws up. But he had a little thing with a straw in his shirt. So while they’re hugging, she was sucking in the vomit so she could do it in one take!

Carol is out in cinemas Friday 27 November