How do filmmakers establish the world of their film: the time, the place, the characters? How can they use the opening minutes of a movie to propose narrative developments and create enigmas, inaugurate their style, even introduce themes and ideology? In ESTABLISHING SHOTS we’ll be looking at how a range of filmmakers use opening scenes to construct their cinematic worlds.
Carol (Todd Haynes, USA, 2015)
Todd Haynes’ ravishing period romance begins with the close-up of a grate, over which the titles appear. It’s the first of many permeable surfaces in a film that persistently obscures its protagonists’ faces. Window glass blurs their facial expressions, door frames fragment their bodies, sometimes all we catch is a glimpse reflected in a mirror (more on this later).
The camera pans up to a bustling city street at night, the honking cabs establishing the place as New York, the hats and overcoats telling us the time is the 1950s. It’s mise-en-scene is familiar from the TV show Mad Men, but as the film progresses we can see the lighting is murkier, the colours far less gaudy than the sets and costumes of that period drama (Haynes said he wanted to evoke a "dirty, distressed, sagging city"). The camera follows an unidentified man at a distance into a glitzy hotel bar, but its glamour appears faded. The dim lighting softens the edges yet also lends the scene a muted quality that reflects the suppressed emotions of the characters. The washed-out greens mimic the colour palette of early 1950s photograph of the time. It also evokes the austere (and conservative) post-war period that the lovers, Carol and Therese, seek to escape.
The man we are following is framed in long shot throughout, we get no close-up to establish him as a main character; but when he spots Therese (Rooney Mara) across the restaurant, we are shown his point of view as he approaches. He is interrupting a meeting between Carol and Therese, the real protagonists. This moment has an emotional significance we won’t fully understand until later, when the story loops back to this scene. Polite and slightly awkward introductions are made, but from this point on we’re immersed in the women’s point of view. Taft, Therese’s friend, is pushed to the margins of the shot, a voice barely acknowledged by either woman looking at him. It is obvious they have eyes only for each other. Carol (Cate Blanchett) departs, her hand lingering on Therese’s shoulder. It’s a gesture that speaks volumes, subtly communicating an intimacy between the women that is a world away from the matey shoulder-squeeze Taft gives her moments later.
The next shot is a close-up of Therese staring out the rain-flecked window of a cab. There is a palpable sense of longing in this shot: Therese watches a couple on the street outside; the woman looks a little like Carol (she is wearing her signature fur coat), and she is laughing as she walks with her male partner. The cab window isolates Therese from this world of happy heterosexual romance.
Raindrops, reflections and condensation smudge and blur Therese’s face. It also wraps her in soft cocoon of reminiscence: the ambient soundtrack of chattering friends and street noise fades away, and we see a brief flashback to the first instant she saw Carol.
Obscuring surfaces are a visual motif that are repeated throughout the film. Haynes and Ed Lachman, his longtime cinematographer, regularly shoot Carol and Therese through glass that is streaked with rain or smudged with dust, or where their faces are eclipsed by reflections. The technical choice of 16mm film stock not only references the emerging street photography of the time - Vivian Maier and Saul Leiter were key inspirations - it also adds a granularity to the image, creating yet another layer that we must peer through.
The surfaces in Carol are symbolic, both visual and psychological. Carol herself is a woman whose costume, hair and make-up is flawless. Yet this is a carefully constructed image of femininity - the perfect wife, the perfect mother - designed to hide her true sexual identity. Carol has erected many barriers to protect herself: against the disapproval of society, from her husband’s suspicions, and from her own emotional vulnerability.
The two women are also often fragmented by the framing of shots through doors, windows and mirrors and this reflects the dislocated nature of their identities and emotions. Both characters have ‘double lives’ that they are attempting to balance (or to join) into a single identity by the movie’s end.
Carol is full of surfaces both permeable and impermeable, physical manifestations of the social barriers separating the two lovers: a conservative post-war society’s disapproval (given narrative weight later by the ‘morality clause’ Harge brings against Carol), but also the additional obstacles of their difference in age, class and wealth. Even when the two women are shot directly, there is often a disruptive male presence to further obstruct the path to their union. Moments of connexion are constantly being interrupted by men, and the film opens with the first of these. Taft, the intruding friend, seems oblivious to the intimate bubble he is bursting, and throughout there are male characters barging between the two women and delaying their union. Something or someone is constantly obstructing Therese and Carol’s love. Yet this only serves to intensify their desire for each other.
The dialogue continues this sense of erotic and romantic frustration. During the film’s development, Haynes worked closely with the screenwriter (Phyllis Nagy) and the main actresses to cut out as much direct speech as possible, making their verbal exchanges clipped and ambiguous. The lack of dialogue becomes another permeable barrier: simultaneously hiding and revealing their true feelings. The effect is to make every glance or gesture loaded with meaning - that hand gently resting on Therese’s shoulder in the first few minutes - saying what the characters are afraid to.
As one New Yorker critic says: “impediments make romance flower into drama”. In Carol, the social (and legal) condemnation of the protagonist’s sexuality means their initial flirtation has to be cautious and enigmatic, but this lends every gesture and glance an erotic weight. It’s as if the whole first hour of the film is extended foreplay, so that when they do finally kiss the effect is devastating.
The repeated impediments that delay and intensify their desire are introduced in the film’s opening six minutes. When are introduced to Carol and Therese from another’s, distant point of view - or when their faces are smudged or fragmented - we have to peer more closely. Our position as spectators is established very quickly: we will have to sharpen our attention, become alert to the nuances of what we are able to see. Both women become enticing and enigmatic to us, reflecting the fascination they feel for each other. The effect is simultaneously distancing and immersive, impediments that heighten the emotional intensity for the characters and the spectator. In this way, the opening six minutes perfectly establishes the mood and themes of the entire film.
On cinematography: http://filmmakermagazine.com/96594-why-ed-lachman-chose-to-shoot-carol-in-16mm/
On mise-en-scene: http://www.elledecor.com/design-decorate/color/a8131/carol-production-design/
Themes and background:
On impediments to desire: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/23/secret-lives-the-current-cinema-anthony-lane
On Haynes and representation of sexuality: http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/archives/issues/fall1998/flaming_creatures.php
On construction of femininity: http://www.indiewire.com/2015/11/todd-haynes-explains-the-cinematic-influences-that-impacted-his-carol-52091/
On Carol and Patricia Highsmith: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/adaptation-patricia-highsmith/
Further viewing (click to watch trailer):
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)
In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter (Tomas Leach, USA, 2013)
Finding Vivien Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, USA, 2013)
Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945)