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Behind Carol: the photographers who influenced Todd Haynes’ award-winning film

“It seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time.”

Variously dubbed “woozy” “stunning” and “gorgeous”, Todd Haynes’ Carol has earned widespread critical praise for its visual splendour. The film’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, was awarded the Golden Frog, the top award at Poland’s Camerimage Film Festival, which is devoted to the art of cinematography. The jury declared it a film of “aristocratic grace and elegance,” noting its “delicate and precise exploration of emotion through color and light”. They added, “It seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time.”

Speaking at a 35mm screening of Carol at the Picturehouse Central on Tuesday, Haynes emphasised the importance of contemporary photography in deciding upon the visual landscape of Carol, explaining that he complied an “image book” of visual references that was shown to almost every person working on the film along the way: producers, set and costume designers, make-up artists, and actors.

The book collected a selection of 1950s photojournalism that revealed a “distressed, dirty, sagging city” that jarred with their own romanticised notions of New York at the time. Aptly for a film that prioritises female perspectives, many of these photographers were women: Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier were all major influences for the team behind Carol. Haynes added that this was where the film developed its “soiled colour palette”.

Ruth Orkin's photograph of Geraldine Dent at the vegetable market and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

Esther Bubley’s “Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill” (credit: Wikimedia Commons) and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

One key photographer, though, was Saul Leiter. As Haynes said to the Guardian, “He’s known for shooting through windows, for using reflection. His work is impressionistic: these exquisite frames, and then that blown colour palette, muted overall with flashes of colour. I’m so proud that people look at this and think: wow, that’s the film. It means that we got it.” His influence is so great that the Southbank have put together a selection of Carol stills next to Leiter photographs in their South Wing: Through a Lens: Saul Leiter and Carol.

Teju Cole wrote in 2013 that “the overriding emotion” in Leiter’s work is “a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.” Despite its setting, Carol possesses a slowness that mirrors the contradiction in Leiter’s photography: Therese and Carol’s relationship is gentle, silent and moves at a glacial pace.

Haynes also emphasised that Leiter’s focus on frames, mirrors, and glass was equally influential for the film, which often lingers on characters gazing at each other through car windows and camera lenses. In the documentary film about his life and work, In No Great Hurry (2012), Leiter says, “There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. We like to pretend that what is public is what the real world is all about.” For a significant portion of the film, Carol is a magnetic but inscrutable character: like Therese, we’re enthralled by, but remain distant from her. Haynes plays with this by including several shots where Carol is partially concealed or abstracted by rainy windows or snowfall. As the film, and its central relationship, progresses, we join Carol on the other side of the glass. Haynes told the Telegraph that when the film opens, “Therese is starting [...] but is not yet ready to put human subjects in her frames. And in many ways you feel like that’s also a process of putting herself in her frame, and seeing herself in the world. Which seeing Carol helps her to do. Carol becomes the first human subject in her lens.”

Saul Leiter (credit: gooseotter on Flickr) and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol.

As Haynes concludes in another interview, “We yearn for the desire to triumph, and it almost never does in the greatest love stories, because we’re left yearning for it more in the end and we wish the world were different as a result. I do love that. You see these people functioning, where their gestures and their words have a limited range of possibility, and so it forces us to read between what they’re saying and what’s possible, to look at what’s between the glass separating them, the glances separating them, or even linking them at times.”

Listen to Anna talking about the visual influences behind Carol on the New Statesman's pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution