The eponymous protagonists of two entries at Cannes this year, Carol and Nahid, have at least one thing in common: they are both divorcees trying to break out of their traditional family roles and not lose their children to their husbands in the process. Each exists in her own setting, ’50s America in Todd Haynes’ Carol and contemporary Northern Iran in Ida Panahandeh’s Nahid. Both dramas reveal the costs of repression and loss of privacy.
Carol, based on crime writer Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 autobiographic romance novel The Price of Salt and in contention for the Palme d’Or, takes place in the early Eisenhower era. Bored socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) encounters a shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) while buying a Christmas present for her daughter. They develop a tentative relationship after Therese returns her forgotten gloves by mail, a relationship that turns perilous when Carol loses her daughter to her husband Harge (Harge Aird) and is forced to begin a custody battle. Waiting for the hearing, the two embark on a road trip to Chicago.
Teresa takes photographs, a passionate interest mirrored in the care with which the film represents the women’s shared experiences. The drab wintry city streets (the films is set in New York but was shot in Cincinnati) match Teresa’s demure earth-colored clothes and contrast with Carol’s flamboyant bright red overcoat. Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman said during the Cannes press conference that their darker palette was inspired by the work of mid-’50s photographers, a different starting point than the extravagant Douglas Sirk melodramas that inspired Haynes’ earlier film Far from Heaven. Lachman’s use of Super 16mm helps to convey a less prosperous, more paranoid time at the height of McCarthyism.
Carol and Theresa need to be guarded in public. Carol’s earlier liaison with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) makes her vulnerable in the fight for her daughter, as lesbian relationships were illegal at the time. Carter Burwell’s score suggests their sense of foreboding as they travel, especially when set against the light pop tunes by Eddie Fisher and the Clovers playing on the car radio. The dread comes to the surface when Harge obtains incontrovertible evidence against Carol (Cold-War-era audio surveillance equipment is involved), and she’s forced to abandon Therese and return to New York.
For all the period details, the film feels strangely contemporary. This isn’t only because Blanchett had to deny ever having sex with women after a badly edited Variety review suggested otherwise. It’s also because Carol and Therese must keep their feelings in check, and the film underscores their tendency to self-police. Therese, intense but reticent, says very little and just stares in fascination at the sophisticated Carol, whose carefully choreographed poses and gestures seem designed to conceal the tragedies in her married life. Until they meet again toward the end of the film, no words of love are spoken at all.
Nahid (dir. Ida Panahandeh)
A fear of being found out also dominates Nahid, Ida Panahandeh’s first feature film selected for the Certain Regard program at Cannes. Nahid (Sareh Bayat) gave up alimony to her husband Ahmad (Navid Mohammad Zadeh) for the custody of her son, Amir Reza (Milad Hossein Pour), but she can only keep him if she does not remarry. When she falls in love, Nahid enters into temporary marriage, called sighe, with Masoud (Pejman Bazeghi), an owner of a seaside motel who has a daughter of his own.
The newlyweds have to pretend that their marriage is permanent when they meet with Masoud’s relatives, because, although sighe is allowed under Sharia law, it is taboo according to everyday customs. Nahid also conceals her new marriage from her son and her former husband, and her poverty (she spends all the little money she has on Amir Reza’s private school) from her new husband. When these lies are discovered, Ahmad takes away her son and Nahid is forced to choose between her son and her new marriage.
Director: Ida Panahandeh
Cast: Sareh Bayat, Pejman Bazeghi, Navid Mohammad, Zadeh, Milad Hossein Pour, Pouria Rahimi, Nasrin Babaei
Studio: Memento Films
Nahid’s lies seem a desperate attempt to hold on to her own space. Hoping to get her son back, she moves in with her brother (Pouria Rahimi). Her new position as a woman in a traditional family household means she can never be alone, and must abandon all the markers of the independent life she led after the divorce, including her apartment and a job as a typist. When she confesses to her sister (Nasrin Babaei) that she wants to rent an apartment and buy another typewriter, we understand that she is ready to begin fighting for her life with Masoud again.
Modern surveillance equipment — video this time — corrodes Nahid’s privacy as much as tradition does. At the outset, we see Masoud’s secret trysts with Nahid with through his motel’s video surveillance monitor. Later, Ahmad finds out about the affair when the police ask him to run through CCTV footage for possible suspects. And when Nahid leaves him, Masoud stares longingly at the monitor showing an empty beach. Cinematographer Morteza Gheidi’s choice of colors intimate the limitations of grainy surveillance cameras, grey autumn weather, gloomy small town streets, and dark outfits. Once in a while a colorful element stands out, such as the red couch, a marker of Nahid living on her own (and, according to her sister, her bad taste). Feeling watched, Nahid is reticent, her proud gaze and straight posture as much of a mask as Carol’s elegant poses.