Film still, Los Nombres de Las Flores, 2019 © Bahman Tavoosi

 

Los Nombres de Las Flores (2019)
Director: Bahman Tavoosi (79 minutes)
Genre: Fiction
Language: Spanish
Greenground Productions

 

Amid the majestic terrain of Bolivia, a poetically sublime film unfolds. The Names of the Flowers / Los Nombres de Las Flores, a feature length fictional portrait of a village with allegorical inferences of diaspora and political fallacy, is filmed in a poignant documentary-genre aesthetic.

Bahman Tavoosi, citing inspiration from neo-realism and employing still-motion theatricality, has authored an investigation surrounding the circumstances prior to the death of the legendary revolutionary martyr, Che Guevara. The arid and harsh scenery sets the background for this ambiguous tale of a rural teacher who met with El Che, providing him with a simple meal of a bowl of soup that inspired the revolutionary to compose a poem, the title piece of the film.

What distinguishes this film from the current spectacular pageantry and excesses of the narrative fiction genre is its serenity, portrayed with exemplary camera direction. Devoid of technical artifice, the characters of the village are revealed, their status and mundane hardships only illustrated by visual sequences, and the audience is drawn into the enchantment of absurdity and realism. The core narrative is interspersed with fragmented images that sustain a visual suspense. The intriguing claims of the anonymous village woman who is said to have received and fed the martyr prior to his assassination keep shifting throughout the film, while figures arrive to enliven the construction of the narration.

There is no clear protagonist. An elderly woman, mother to a mute boy, appears throughout the film. The stark interior of her residence, a spartan adobe home of clay and brick, houses a silent testimony to the extreme poverty of the region. Her child, a social misfit, wanders and is filmed at random, playing in abandoned vehicles or open spaces adjacent to the village. His presence underscores the absurdity of the premise behind the police investigation, as the political echoes of a defunct junta embed in the filmic memory.

The aesthetic and pacing of the film are reminiscent of the works of Antonioni or Kiarostami. The static camera absorbs the poetic stillness of life. The resplendence of the common surfaces is reflected as the rustic interior and majestic landscape are caught, frame by frame, in an underlying visual tension. The attention to light might be akin to that of Vermeer, and a painterly quality is achieved that is consistently present throughout the visual horizons of the camera.

The absence of a child, gifted in music, permeates the shadow of the elderly woman in portrait. The foolish pageantry of state officials, intent on celebrating the death of the martyr, resounds with satirical accolade. The spectre of Che Guevara frames the story, yet Bahman Tavoosi’s masterful oration impels the audience to meditate on the farcical and fragile aspects of the human condition.

The identity of the heroine is never quite affirmed. The ambiguity of the honours to be duly awarded her dooms that to fail. What emerges as an apparently anodyne, benign presence in the lives of the actual villagers is the facile dichotomy of remembrance and the ostensibly salutary efforts of a political vestige of the junta. One is led to wonder about the actual state of affairs in modern-day Bolivia – especially after being further captivated by the film’s incorporation of the native dialect, the authenticity of the non-actors who played the majority of roles, and the textured details of the cinematography.

 

Film still, Los Nombres de Las Flores, 2019 © Bahman Tavoosi

 

The visual poetics enact a telling, spatial mnemonic, placing emphasis on the parallelism of image and narration: the art of film. The subtext of detachment and isolation amid the inner plateau of Bolivia, which Tavoosi infers through the visual impact of cinematographic movement, positions the quiet absurdity of the characters who arrive, interspersed with the objectivized role of the police detective who appears to be investigating not crime, but myth.

The manner of storytelling is particularly evasive: the filmic montage (suggestive of Godard’s approach) utilizes non-symbolic imagery to suspend a tale without either a definitive beginning, middle or end. The film might imply influences of magical realism, as sections of the narration appear to be cyclic, while the overall achievement remains one of the sublimation and fusion of the political with the social. The legend of Che awoken, the thread unwinds in a non-linear episodic movement.

The film is essentially visually episodic. With the primacy of the camera and the scenic display, the original quest to ascertain the identity of the “antagonist” who served soup to the legendary figure of transnational South American liberation becomes a pale shadow of itself. The travesty of the officials who arrive to conduct the memorial services and pay homage to the mythic accomplishment of a village that played host to the martyr in his last waking days is clear. The scenes resound with a sense of avarice and subversive humour.

Sporadic interrogations begin placidly, as devoid of menace as possible, led by spectral, vapid figures echoing what can only be a diffuse and impossible power, amid the expansive landscape and stoicism of the village characters. As they endeavour to resurrect and create an idol, the myth dissipates. There appears to be no collective voice of the community, only individuals introduced in the mundane but intimate isolation of a schoolhouse, accompanied by a narration on the futility of veracity in such an unorthodox, non-linear tale.

The Names of the Flowers evokes a powerful imagistic portrait of an era, where nuanced filmmaking and cinematography emerge as the a priori force in the relating of a mythical tale. Evidently, improvisation supersedes a traditional script, with dreamscape and erratum woven in a manner evocative of Bergson.

We are immersed in a distant land, a cultural encapsulation juxtaposed with the ravages of time, the paradox of forensic research and imaginary fabula. What has been crafted with emphatic, contemplative silence is the correlation of the absence of linear time and eternal of image. We are left with the poetic words of Che prior to his death, when – moved at receiving a simple meal – he counted the names of flowers. The film engenders a barren sense of warmth and nostalgia, as it unfolds with subtle irony and speaks of life in a generation gone amiss.

 

Film still, Los Nombres de Las Flores, 2019 © Bahman Tavoosi

 

For more information on the film, see Los Nombres de Las Flores (Québec cinema) and The Names of the Flowers (Greenground).

Los Nombres de Las Flores has won the following awards:

2021 Gilles-Carle Prize, Rendez-vous Québec Cinema Award
2020 Best Narrative Feature, Venice Film Week
2019 Jury Award, Tallinn Black Nights International film Festival
2020 Best Narrative Feature, Brussels Independent Film Festival
2020 First prize, Best Feature category, Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival
2020 Audience Award & Jury Award,  Aswan International Film Festival
2020 Sao Paulo International Film Festival
2020 Beijing International Film Festival
2020 Haifa International Film Festival
2020 Mill Valley International Film Festival

 

 

 

 

 

“JHOLMOLIA” The Sacred Water – a documentary by Saiful Wadud Helal, who is originally from Bangladesh and has worked as director, producer and writer for television channels in Canada and abroad.

Saiful Wadud Helal’s latest film echoes the need for rebuilding our relationship with nature and water, and questions how modernization has had a direct impact on water crises in Bangladesh.

Following the devastating cyclone in 2005, multiple villages were destroyed. Jholmolia, a small pond in an isolated region of Southern Bangladesh, was the only surviving area left untouched by the destruction. This pond now sits surrounded by villages.

Jholmolia is not only a source of drinking water, but also a place where villagers spend much of their time socializing and interacting with one another. They come to discuss socio-political and spiritual issues that affect them in their daily lives. This kind of interaction creates a sense of community and belonging for the villagers. Jholmolia has thus become the centre of many people’s well-being and an intrinsic part of their identity. This body of water serves as a lifeline for the neighbouring villages, and people have developed a sacred bond with the pond.

Muslim and Hindu villagers alike worship Jholmolia as their mother and believe her waters bring light into their lives. A sense of unity within people’s hearts and minds grows through this special relationship, and it helps to remove some of the ever-present political polarization and religious extremism in Bangladesh. Through Jholmolia, the villagers discover that the essence of humanity lies in love, where nature and water form an integral part of the living cycle.

As a result of damaging cyclones and floods, increased drinking water crises and infiltration of salt water into freshwater sources in Bangladesh, hundreds of people have become homeless. In the midst of these challenges, the untouched sacred body of water affectionately known as “Ma Jholmolia” gives hope to the people of Hurka village.

The filmmaker takes us on a journey to discover the spirit of Jholmolia through the various lives of the villagers. He portrays how the grace of this small sacred lake has enhanced everyone’s well-being. Through their life stories, viewers are left with a deep sense of longing to return home. Saiful Wadud Helal himself searches for this sense of home in his native country, and finally finds it in the spirit of Jholmolia.

The film shows us that water has deeper dimensions stretching beyond our everyday perceptions. JHOLMOLIA reminds us about the consequences of modernization and how government control over basic needs like drinking water can have a devastating impact on people’s health and social development. Most importantly, it can undermine their knowledge of how to live in harmony with Mother Nature. The villagers see Jholmolia as their only hope of survival, and they believe that this living body of water protects them from all calamities and embraces them with endless generosity. At a time when we are going through drinking water crises around the world, JHOLMOLIA offers us a glimpse of hope.

This film asks a broader question as well: in this industrialized world, are we willing to sacrifice essential clean water for monetary gain? JHOLMOLIA shows how our actions today are directly affecting villages like Hurka and their chance of survival.

At the end of the film, Jholmolia becomes a home to many, including the filmmaker.

This is a beautiful film with a strong spiritual and political message conveyed through the sentiments and stories of the villagers, and delivered through the spirit of “Ma Jholmolia.”

Les dépossédés – opening shot

 

Film Review of Mathieu Roy’s The Dispossessed (Les dépossédés)

 

The camera shows a woman in a field. The ground around her is rough, with a bit of greenery in the distance. She goes down into a ditch, comes up with her shallow enamel bowl filled with water and tilts it into a watering can. In this way, she fills the whole can then takes it a bit further out into the field and waters the parched ground. Though the ditch with its muddy water isn’t shown, we can imagine it and we realize that this is a precious resource for her.

The camera stands still – an observer, interested but unobtrusive. There are no zooms, no close-ups, no cinematic gimmicks that viewers have become so accustomed to.

This opening shot from Mathieu Roy’s The Dispossessed (Les dépossédés) encapsulates all that is to follow. This is the life of a small farmer in a so-called developing country – an existence replete with repetitive, continuous physical labour that goes unnoticed in the high-tech frenzy of urban existence.

The small farmers in Roy’s film are ever-present in our world, have been for time immemorial, with their basic tools, humble dwellings and simple diet, and they are numerous, 3.5 billion to be precise. And yet they are almost invisible. Roy’s intention in The Dispossessed is to imprint their hardy existence on our consciousness.

The film brings to mind the magnificent photographs of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado in his book entitled Workers. Here he powerfully portrays, in stark black and white, labourers of all ilk from across the world, documenting and dignifying this million-armed surge of humanity. Roy’s ambition goes beyond bearing witness. Aided by his talented cinematographer, Benoît Aquin, he poses the question: why are these feeders of the world so marginalized themselves and often so malnourished?

That question becomes a piercing arrow in this political film, which goes from micro to macro settings, often from one frame to the next. Given the palpable reality of peasant life that it embodies, a bird’s eye view of a giant fallen tree and women hacking away at it with an axe to make firewood; a misty shot of two young farmers seeding and spraying their fields; the slick precincts of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the high-tech lab of Syngenta, the world’s largest crop chemical producer with approximately US$13.4 billion in 2015 (source: Wikipedia), come as a visceral shock.

Worldviews collide, particularly when Roy interviews a left-wing Indian economist and award-winning developmental journalist, P. Sainath (Everybody Loves A Good Drought, 1996, Penguin India), who, along with others, delves into the whys and hows of farmer disempowerment – western protectionism of agriculture and the dumping of cheap surplus grain and other foodstuff in developing nations; farmers forced to shift from food to commercial crops that are priced by a volatile commodities market, wreaking havoc for small farmers; the need to take loans to buy expensive and harmful chemical inputs that have caused massive indebtedness in India and a wave of farmer suicides; not to mention the degradation of soil fertility and other environmental fallouts of neoliberal policies.

Les dépossédés – P. Sainath

In underlining the global scope of the problem, Roy takes us to Switzerland where traditional dairy farmers in a remote, rural community talk about their inability to compete with a market flooded with commercial, factory-produced milk – an ethos that treats cows as milk-producing units, making profane the age-old bond between a farmer and his or her animals.

For me the success of this 3-hour film rests in the indelible images of the unending work of farmers and people in farm-related sectors, and the way the film weaves together the human and political story (micro-macro) into a cogent and compelling whole.

“These (small) farmers are inefficient; they should be doing industrial jobs; let global agribusiness feed the millions,” is a common cry of market-is-king economics. Roy’s rejoinder to this is to show the displaced rural poor, working on a huge construction site in an Indian city, with no safety equipment, babies tied to the women labourers’ backs or older children walking around on slabs of concrete hundreds of feet above the ground. The camera shows a crumpled sheet on the slab and a woman bathing with water gushing out of a pipe in far shot, letting us know that for these people, even the basic brick structure that we were shown as their home in their village is now gone.

My only critique of the film is that the approach of ‘show not tell’ and ‘letting the camera sit still as action unrolls before it’ (that is so life-like and effective in depicting the farmers’ lives) does not work when the camera is trained through a window on executives dining in expensive suits or on a blonde woman relaxing on the roof of the WTO, taking her sunglasses on and off and talking on her cell phone. The camera, humane until then and intelligently probing, grows petty and didactic, falling short of the systemic critique that the film otherwise makes so well.

Les dépossédés

The last scene is also a telling one. Now the farmer has somehow procured some grain and is shown squatting near a mud hearth at dusk, cooking cereal in a pot that she balances with some difficulty over her faulty “stove.” She stirs her proverbial pot, and we realize how very little she has to eat and how precarious is her existence.

These images in the film will stay with you long after you’ve exited the theatre and the statistics and arguments have faded. The conviction will remain with you that a terrible wrong is being inflicted here – one that must be exposed, fought against and righted.

 

 

 

 

(The following piece is based on the author’s musings and reviews of a novel, its sequel and its adaptation into a film.)

 

Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe

A first novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons, published simultaneously in New York and London by HBJ in 1976. You might wrongly assume that most of the events occur in London or somewhere in Europe.

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? A Delicious Mystery

A 1978 film by Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. “Delicious” it is, not only for the chosen tone of comedy, but also for the exquisiteness of the recipes. Released in 1978, it became an immediate success.

 

Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of America (1993)

A sequel by the same authors. Many of the characters and events are borrowed from the first novel.

In order to avoid “spoilers,” I will use material from my previous writings to explore some comparative aspects of the adaptation of literary works to the cinema. After writing for half a century, I now find it difficult to avoid talking about myself. (One of the greatest French novelists declared that a good writer tries to make believe that he never existed.) Having to write in English (my fifth language), I feel more at ease talking about myself because I realize that the first person pronoun is always capitalized. Would that be characterized as imperialism?

Who is (are?) the actual culprit(s?) in both books and in the film? Please do not consider my initial question as a provocation, but as something to be taken literally, although ironically so. It could not be otherwise. Before deciding what to expect of a screenplay adaptation of famous mysteries – material previously read as literary text – many film fans might bet that some aspects (e.g., the perpetrators of the crimes, or their methods) would need to be modified. Sometimes accomplices are added in the film, and the dynamics are different. Sometimes the surprise consists in following the original text literally – but that is dangerous and should be done only once in a lifetime by an experienced director.

No matter what, my opinion will remain that of a dilettante. Although I have written books, articles and film reviews, organized and directed film societies, attended film festivals (the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica started in 1932 and the new Palazzo del Cinema was inaugurated in 1937), I was unable to find a reason for the special retrospective I myself witnessed at the age of eight, in the summer of 1938, held in the open air garden of the Excelsior Hotel at the Venezia-Lido. Who organized it and why there? I remember watching Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. There was a second feature: Extasis by Machaty. A few years after, Luchino Visconi chose the same hotel to film Death in Venice based on the novella by Thomas Mann.

Who or what predisposed me to become a film fan at an early age? Undeniably my parents, since they both cherished films and opera. Every fortnight there was a lyrical drama, and there were ample opportunities to watch films, even on weekdays. My first collection of reading material was libretti for opera, issued periodically with a red cover, and I was in charge of cataloguing them. My mother was enamoured with Pirandello’s works, while my father puzzled over mysteries. Those came with a yellow cover, a colour so attractive that it became the designation for the genre. It is very rare in Italian for an adjective to be transformed into a noun that finds its way into all the dictionaries.

No one will deny that at the root of every film there is a text, which may be a short treatment, a fully developed script, a novel, a play, a story, etc. There are a few exceptions that confirm the rule. The most notorious is Andy Warhol, incessantly filming a building overnight in New York – he makes his point. Avant-garde movements all have to break the rules. In France in the 1950s, Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître systematized that practice, and the latter persists in doing so bravely to this day. Not everyone agrees on the literary importance of the script. Ingmar Bergman, one of the great filmmakers of those times, declared that cinema had nothing to do with literature. Visconti writes: “The author of a film is an author in his own right. The script is only a point of departure.”

One of my first articles about the literary origins of cinematic endeavours was written in Portuguese upon seeing Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I was so electrified that for the first time in my life, I felt nailed to my seat of that Rio de Janeiro movie house, compelled to watch the film twice in a row – a very rare occurrence. I now can’t resist narrating what appears to have been the conversation between the filmmaker calling from Rome and the Argentinian writer residing in Paris. Carol Dunlop, a very intelligent Canadian writer, picks up the ringing phone and tells Julio Cortázar that Antonioni wants to talk to him. Julio thinks that she’s pulling his leg, and doesn’t move. At her insistence, he finally complies. Antonioni explains to Cortázar that he was fascinated by the mechanism of blowing up images, but that he would do a different film. Julio, who is already a sincere admirer of Antonioni’s previous films, bows and approves. After the release of the film, Cortázar is interviewed and asked if he sees himself reflected in the film. He answers enigmatically: “we meet somewhere in the clouds…” but adds almost immediately that the film was magnificent. Indeed, Antonioni alters as many aspects of the short story “The Devil’s Drool” as he possibly can: the location of events – London instead of Paris; the characters – a mature gentleman and a younger woman seemingly married but not to one other, instead of an adolescent boy and a go-between for a predator of young flesh waiting patiently in a nearby parked car; and a professional fashion photographer instead of a Sunday-only amateur, etc. Moreover, Antonioni adds to his plot a crowd of characters that are non-existent in the written text. I analyzed the film in at least two academic papers that later became articles, in the hope of proving that Antonioni did the most intelligent thing he could in adapting Cortázar to the screen – instead of illustrating by sticking to the letter, he stuck to the spirit of the book.

As far as I am concerned, it is not up to me to conclude if I succeeded in convincing my listeners and my readers. The question can be reopened at any time, and here is the bibliographical data:

  • “Blow-up from Cortázar to Antonioni,” Literature/Film Quarterly, IV, 1. (Winter 1976), 68-75;
  • “Antonioni’s Interpretation of Reality and Literature,” Forum Italicum,  XIII, 1, (Spring 179), 82-93;
  • “Nouvelles perspectives comparatistes: Le Ciné-roman. Vers le ciné-roman et au delà,” Neohelicon (Budapest) XVII, 261-271. In it, Antonioni is quoted when commenting on his last book, Techniquement douce: ‘I was so involved in it that I thought that I had filmed it” (p. 34 of the French text, translated by me). The same article serves also to confirm my bias in regard to Marguerite Duras’ much more radical point of view than mine, when she describes issues pertaining to Le Camion and some of her own films.

The time has come at last to deal with the real crux of the subject. This long preamble was not incidental or a digression, for it gave me the excuse of showing how the great masters of the past have dealt with the problems of adaptation. Let’s begin with the book.

First of all, a mystery implies suspense, and that starts immediately and is constantly present. The authors should be commended for fulfilling this delicate and important task so brilliantly. Secondly, they chose to mix comedy and mystery, and one invariably laughs at every page.

The only cause for astonishment is the quality of language employed in the descriptions, contrary to the courtly vocabulary of British essayists who banned any allusion to sexual matters from their dissertations. But since both authors are Americans, they did not feel compelled to moderate their tone or hold anything back. How free we are from Victorian conventions on this side of the Atlantic, in allowing ourselves to indulge in violating old moral codes with very detailed incursions into anatomical items!

The characters are well developed and believable, despite some obsessive quirks.

The common obsession is with food, as the reader can tell from the title of the novel. The authors are generous in their haute cuisine recipes. One may even try out some recipes if s/he has time, patience, talent, and is able to find the ingredients. I don’t think I would spoil anything if I said that the authors devised a very original way of killing the chefs (whether they died or not), inspired by their own gastronomic specialty.

Here comes the film, and one cannot help but notice that the script is entrusted to Peter Stone, a veteran of Hollywood screenwriters, already famous for Charade, rather than to the two authors of the book (the point of departure for the screenplay). Ivan Lyons majored in film writing at the N.Y. Film Institute. That decision may be a coincidence associated with production, or a deliberate and significant choice. While the book exudes intelligence (diabolically so), the film director replaces that with human sympathy. The crimes are illustrated in a very vivid iconic manner, which increases the enjoyment. Driving the film are Jacqueline Bisset and George Segal, playing, alternately, a married then divorced couple. As they also produced the film, they obviously had first choice about the length and extent of their contribution. But already in the novel, Bissonette’s character plays the role of the easy nymphomaniac (motivated by revenge?). The fact that Jean-Pierre Cassel speaks English with a French accent when he is supposed to be Austrian remains puzzling.

A case of total miscasting was that of Stefano Satta Flores. I am sorry to have to express a negative view on a very excellent actor whom I happen to respect, and who died of cancer prematurely at the apex of his career – an actor whom I have applauded on the screen and on TV, and one who was at ease in any kind of a role. He is not to be blamed, but whoever chose him for his role did not know an old proverb describing the inhabitants of the three sub-regions that form the Republic of Venice. I will quote and translate only the first part, although the entire text applies to all the other regions. “Veneziani gran signori” implies being refined, polite, generous, intelligent, magnanimous, courteous, educated, appreciative of good food and of all arts and sciences, elegant, definitely trustworthy, scrupulous – a Renaissance man. Tall, without extravagance, treating women as ladies (even when they are not) and naturally charming. Since pinching ladies is considered extremely vulgar by the gran signore, he instead engages in appropriate bowing and well-choreographed hand-kissing.

The second novel features some of the same characters and some new ones.

The suspects are also some of the same. The traditional duty of avoiding spoilers prohibits me from disclosing the stroke of genius that inspired the authors to hide a new-old character and a new-old suspect. Let us add that this is not the only pleasant surprise that happens in the book; many other extraordinary new developments are introduced, all meaningful and unexpected. The authors themselves become characters, in a rather uncommon and very clever twist. The readers will uncover soon enough the enigma, and figure out what dictates the authors’ behaviour. They frequently prefer not to say things openly, relying instead on suggestion or inference. For example, they have studied and travelled abroad extensively and are well aware of culinary terminology. Yet they do not write a single sentence in Italian, French, German, Spanish, or Japanese without including some mistakes. They do this on purpose, to caricature the ugly American tourist with a fake Hawaiian shirt hanging down over inappropriately long shorts, sun eyeglasses, binoculars on his beer belly, attempting to order lunch in a foreign restaurant. The fact that the language is replete with four-letter words does not shock anyone any more, since that has become the prevailing style.

The authors are masterful at creating fast-paced suspense, and the moral of the two novels is a hymn to the couple. In fact, the husband seems to forgive his beloved wife and overlook her erratic sexual adventures. Is she telling the whole truth?

 

IMG_0216

 

Editorial note: This is a slightly modified and edited version of an essay that appeared in the author’s personal blog. 

 

Directed by Todd Haynes in a Cincinnati, Ohio made over to look like New York and its suburbs in the early 1950s,Carol is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s happily-ever-after 1952 lesbian romance, The Price of Salt. Published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” and one of scores of lesbian pulp fiction available at the time from Bantam Books, The Price of Salt was and remains notable for its happy ending; this is because love stories involving gender non-conforming people tend, still, toward tragic plots involving suicide, insanity and murder. Indeed, so accustomed have I become to such plot devices that I was unprepared for the denouement of the film: the moment where the lovers catch each other’s eyes across a crowded bar, and you know that their relationship will continue. That’s it? I think I asked aloud. I was sure that one of the protagonists would have to die, be committed, or go to jail.

The story seems a sweet one, if you go for that kind of thing. Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a mink coat wearing wealthy suburbanite, unhappy in her marriage and her big house, but deeply attached to her daughter and her best friend and former lover, Abby. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer. The two meet in the Christmas rush at the department store where Therese works; their relationship unfolds slowly as mutual fascination over martinis and cigarettes in enclosed spaces−the interiors of cars, restaurants and houses, their faces often in shadow, the camera peering at them through soft focus, rain-spatter and around and across thresholds−not quite voyeuristic, but dreamlike, a bit out of the world, despite overheard occasional chatter and radio broadcasts that refer to Senator McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the midst of a nasty divorce in which it looks as if she will lose her daughter, Aird (in whose name you would be right to hear “erred”) invites Belivet (“good living”) to go for a car trip “west.” The two become lovers in a small motel west of Chicago, and then part when they discover that Aird’s husband has had them tailed and taped by a private eye. Such evidence allows him, on the basis of an “amorality” charge, to sue for exclusive custody of his daughter−historically a not uncommon event in the lives of North American lesbian mothers.

©Karin Cope
©Karin Cope

Nursing her broken heart, Belivet returns to New York, where she finds work as a clerk in the photo department at the New York Times−for to be paid to be a photographer, well, that’s a man’s job. After work, she develops her photographic practice, and wanders, unattached, in a sort of straight village bohemian scene.  After a time−Aird has settled some aspects of her divorce and moved to a swank Manhattan apartment−the two meet again for drinks. Aird confesses her love, but gives Belivet time to think about whether she wants to pick up their love affair again. Late that night, Belivet has her answer, and the lovers catch sight of one another across a crowded smoky bar. Fade to black from bright eyes. Riff of American songbook inspired jazz, Jo Stafford’s 1953 hit, “No Other Love.”

Innocuous at worst, right? Possibly even uplifting; a recovery, albeit partial, of some aspects of North American queer history. And yet, the film bothered me. A lot.

What do you think? my partner Marike asked me. Why was this film made now? We both knew it couldn’t be because lesbian love is somehow now worthy of celebration−that remains an iffy proposition at best in mainstream cultural productions. The price of salt remains very high in the lives of most gender non-conforming people. We’ve not yet moved to a place where families don’t frequently toss their queer children or commit them, and closets are simply places where you store your shoes and your extra tights or ties. Some other politics is at work in the revival of this particular version of the queer New York 1950s.

Why so much vaseline and soft focus, the camera that caresses Blanchett’s pale face, her tossing blond locks?

For sure, this is a film about blond allure−as the enthusiastic ride-home commentary from our friend, who describes herself as “partial to blonds,” amply testified. Even more than that, however, I’d say that this is a film about and in praise of whiteness.

Not only can you count the fleeting appearances of silent people of colour in the film on one hand (the walk on by a black couple in a Village street scene, the black maid at Airds’ in-laws), the film works hard to abolish class and ethnic barriers among its principles, to subsume them in affluence, “local colour” and nostalgia, in order to create a seamlessly white world in which no barrier is truly insurmountable, provided we ignore any inconvenient historical chatter at the edges of the screen.

When, at their first meeting, Belivet begins to explain to Aird that her last name is Czech, but misspelled and corrupted by the immigration process, Aird cuts her off; she doesn’t want to know even that much. Therese Belivet, she says; that’s a lovely name. Likewise, the film gathers Belivet’s friends, all of whom are male, and some number of whom might be Jewish or of Italian working-class extraction, into its snowy fold.

Everything is possible in this hopeful world of affluence-polished upward mobility−provided you’re not too leftist, too outspoken, too racialized, too poor. The soft focus and Carol’s flipping blond curls, the close-ups, the peering at pale faces through darkened, rain-streaked glass, the winter landscape as the couple flees west, the expanse of Therese’s white skin as the two women at last begin to make love: these key tropes serve to establish a love affair between these two women as a love affair with whiteness.

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As such, the film bleaches away history, political critique, class distinction, financial limits, even loss−it all comes right (or promises to do so) between the protagonists in the end. No matter lost custody or family recrimination; no matter the recently ended Nuremberg Trials, the Rosenberg Trial, or the McCarthy hearings; no matter job loss or gender limits, unequal distribution of wealth or sexual discrimination: Therese can come to live in Carol’s luxurious apartment, and the two will continue to be served by nearly invisible servers, to drive at night along dimly-lit streets, listening to nostalgic and mostly white−Billy Holiday is the only notable exception−crooners, in a world where checks on freedom of speech, assembly and political affiliation and long-running battles around integration at lunch counters, in the military, in schools (Brown vs the Board of Education will begin to mandate school desegregation in 1954), on voters’ rolls, and in sports are so far away as to be non-existent.

Thus, while the film seems to be about queerness, or even a principled and proactive stand−Carol’s quite striking insistence, as she and her lawyers meet with her husband and his lawyers, that how she loves is not immoral, but any law that would sever her from her daughter is−such moments don’t hold up against the cigarette-saturated nostalgia and watery focus of the rest of the tale. In Carol, in short, the lesbian story is a whitewash, a screen blocking out other contemporary and pressing concerns.

Why this film now? I think it is clear: we are living in a time when a certain part of (increasingly mainstreamed) American politics is all about whiteness: there are the birthers and truthers, who persist, against all evidence and reason, with the argument that Barack Hussein Obama is an illegitimate and ruinous president simply because he is black and has three non-European names; there’s Trump’s insane and all-too-popular demagogic vision, where what will make America great again involves ridding the country of immigrants, non-Christians, and people of colour; at this writing there is the band of armed white men who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in protest against First Nations and federal land management strategies that limit their (apparently divinely granted) use of park lands as cattle-grazing territory. And while it might be easy to dismiss all of these phenomena as the last-stand ravings of an outrageous maniac white fringe, that’s too easy.  Like them, Carol is all about the celebration of white privilege; we shouldn’t let the lesbian theme or the lovely blond curls of Blanchett (more whiteness) blind us to such snow.

Carol enlists a new fringe (white middle-class or affluent queers) to a new mainstream, to a history in which black and indigenous lives not only don’t matter, they’re virtually invisible. This is a dangerous message and an abuse of history, as well as a turn away from spaces of the present where we, as citizens and North Americans, are called to act.  Where #blacklivesmatter; where we look for and count murdered and missing Indigenous women; where unemployment and poverty are rampant; where access to clean water is not a given for all of our citizens, nor is healthcare or shelter; where more than one in five children are raised in poverty; where prisons are big business, and nonwhites are disproportionately arrested, detained and incarcerated; where corporate kleptocrats flout the law and do not pay their fair share; where the 1% continues to make more, while many of the rest do with less; where soft-focus neoliberalism persuades us to cede more and more common spaces, not to mention our critical acuity.

The Price of Salt might have sold a million copies as “the novel of a love society forbids,” but I’m not buying that story today, as Carol tells it, where a love between women forbids not only most of society, but clear vision and nuanced contemporary conversation.

Why should Carol be the big queer tale of the year (and The Imitation Game last year’s offering)? If we’re going to hang about in the precincts of the queer mid-twentieth century, where is the film version of Audre Lorde’s Zami? Or a life of Lorraine Hansberry−To Be Young, Gifted and Black?  Where’s the Marsha P. Johnson blockbuster, or the smash biopic about Babe Bean/Jack Garland?  What about a big film about Samuel Delaney? Or James Baldwin?  I tell you, it had better be The Fire Next Time!