Todd Haynes is no stranger to controversy. The filmmaker, whose new lesbian romance Carol recently premiered to much critical love at the Cannes Film Festival, got a brush with it right at the beginning of his career. 1991's Poison, his first feature, was targeted by conservative religious groups for its depictions of gay characters and gay sex, with the added political hook that it received some of its funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Poison went on to win prizes, become a milestone of New Queer Cinema, and launch a directorial career that would encompass Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and I'm Not There. But in 2015, Haynes doesn't expect anything like the attacks he received when starting out, even with a film that united two famous actresses in a heated affair.
"I don't with Carol, I really don't," Haynes said at a Cannes press roundtable, noting how much times have changed. "It was interesting just recently to watch what happened when the religious freedoms were trying to be protected in Arizona — it backfired utterly. I think we're moving in a certain direction, and there are going to be obstacles along the way, but I don't think you can really go backwards."
He added, "I just read a statistic that more Americans would be comfortable with a gay president than a Christian evangelist. Which is bizarre to me, and that marks a radical shift in the last five-to-10 years."
Carol is a love story, but it's also very much about homophobia and gender expectations. It's set in 1952, where the title character (played by Cate Blanchett) finds her sexuality being used against her in a battle for the custody of her daughter, even as Carol becomes involved with a younger woman, Therese (Rooney Mara). Haynes uses the repression of his characters to show a courtship that takes place entirely in glances and what's left unsaid.
"I always love it when words escape characters and there are things that happen that can't be articulated," Haynes said. "That is really where the visual language of film is given its most necessity." And in a strangely fitting way, the strict social codes of the time enable the love affair between Carol and Therese to unfold.
"Two women deciding to live together in 1952 is way more acceptable than a man and a woman living together in 1952 who aren't married," Haynes pointed out. "I felt this in Far From Heaven — there's actually more liberty, more freedom in hiding or following certain social conventions that give strange permission for closeness."
He continued, "You're watching how these women pursue each other: Carol invites a girl out to lunch. It's more acceptable at the time than it would seem today [where] it probably would seem more like a come-on. Whereas Carol says, 'I wouldn't have asked a man to go to lunch — that would have been something else.'"