Of Our Time

The Role of Nostalgia in the Films of Todd Haynes


Also set in 1950s America, Carol is a film that feels as though it is a continuation of ideas explored in Far from Heaven. Playing with the same ideals of 1950s America – taboo to even mention homosexuality with dialogue such as “I put nothing past women like you” or “Have I ever heard of someone like that?” dedicated to establishing this unspeakable element of society – and even showing a character, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) undergoing gay conversion therapy, Carol is a film that takes Haynes’ approach to nostalgia in a different direction. That said, it does use 1950s iconography as it uses songs from singers such as Eddie Fisher, a variety of dolls and train sets as Christmas gifts, and continuous images of quaint old New York in the days leading into Christmas and New Year’s. Cinematographer Edward Lachmann’s imagery further instills this nostalgic feeling, creating a classical and aged look to the film. Part of this is due to the usage of super 16mm film (which was invented in 1969, but Carol is not intended to be stylistically similar to films of the 1950s, unlike Far from Heaven), which creates a grainy and aged look to the film that perfectly fits the classical charm of the city. The world of 1950s America, and especially New York City, is a lively one, exuding grace and joy as the Christmas holiday approaches and shoppers flock to finish on time.


Yet, it is in the setting – Christmas – that Haynes uses Carol as a way to take aim at another form of nostalgia. Though Carol also tears down the nostalgia-based facade of 1950s America, revealing the intolerant and cruel nature of the world that is hidden underneath layers of fond memories, Haynes very much does the same for Christmas. Consistently describing Christmas as a holiday of togetherness and family, Therese (Rooney Mara) has to turn down an invite to her boyfriend Richard’s (Jake Lacy) family Christmas as she believes it to be for family only, and Carol is herself invited to spend Christmas with a friend so that she is not alone on Christmas. By showing how far from the truth the concept of the ‘family Christmas’ is for members of the LGBTQ community, Haynes aims to show the hypocrisy of those who revel in Christmas while being intolerant at the same time. At a time of such great warmth and unity, Carol is served with an injunction by ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) that seeks full custody of their daughter. Claiming her being a lesbian violates a morality clause – a point which is emphasized by Carol’s friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) likely to highlight the parallel between a morality clause with the arrival of Santa Claus being right around the corner – Harge takes their daughter away from Carol right before she is to spend Christmas with her mother, robbing both of them of time spent together in favor of a trip that gets cancelled at the last second. Following this up with hiring a man to record Carol having sex with Therese as proof of her violation, Harge and the other characters in the world of Carol may argue that they love their families and want to foster togetherness in the Christmas spirit, but their pursuits are rather self-serving. They, as with many, wish to be together with their family but have no problem tearing apart people who love one another. To characters such as Richard, the idea of homosexual love is absurd and is due to “something in the background” of the person. Carol is forced to fight for her daughter due to her lesbianism all while her ex-husband claims he wants to get back together with her. It is a confusing web of hypocrisy for characters in the film as they actively seek to keep Therese and Carol apart – at any cost – while simultaneously seeking to foster their own Christmas spirit and togetherness. At a time of giving, these characters seek to only take.

As such, for Haynes, the Christmas season is not one worthy of nostalgia. Rather, it is a time to review the contradictions present in the Christian-led culture of 1950s America. Demonstrating that those against Therese and Carol’s love are ones who seek to enforce heteronormativity, believe homosexuality to be a choice, and are only willing to embrace lovers and togetherness when it falls in line with their worldview or somehow benefits them, Carol practically dares audiences to find fault with the romance of its characters. As Haynes lovingly portrays the sex scene between Therese or Carol, as Therese and Carol make eye contact from across the room, as Carter Burwell’s score crescendos and creates a swelling of emotion, as Carol fights to live her life “against the grain” and restore her relationship with Therese, and as Lachmann’s photography bathes the characters in red and green for the season and to symbolize both their passion and their growth (in learning who they are), Haynes dares audiences to not feel a similar warmth and passion. Carol is a film set in the cold of winter and the gray streets of New York do not offer a blanket for the chill induced by the film. The color green, as a cool color, further pushes the envelope with Haynes draping many scenes in which Therese or Carol are feeling the brunt of their emotional isolation and society’s rejection of their lifestyle in this color, using a similar approach to Far from Heaven’s color scheme. On-the-surface, this is not a warm film. Yet, through Haynes’ direction, the demonstration of passion through the connection felt between Carol’s leads, and the raw emotion as these women fight for the right to love who they want, he creates a film that is as warm as any classical Hollywood melodrama.


It is this created warmth that enables Haynes to reveal the absurdity of the hostility shown towards Therese and Carol with a view towards the nostalgia for Christmases of old. The nostalgia for Christmas champions the familial bond and the spirit of giving. Yet, as Haynes shows, these are as misplaced as the nostalgia for eras such as the 1950s. Though Haynes manages to create a film that serves as a great Christmas film, embodying the spirit of giving and togetherness whenever Carol demonstrates the love she has for her daughter or whenever Carol and Therese are together, he equally manages to undermine and critique the underlying spirit of the season. At a time of so much love and family, there are people forced to spend the holiday alone as a byproduct of their desire to live as their heart demands.

Furthermore, the leads of the Carol further serve as a critique of the era in which the film is set. Both Therese and Carol stand as women who are more akin to Far from Heaven’s Kathy at the end of her film. At no point are either repressed suburban housewives who devotedly care for their husbands, organize events, and fret about spreads with the other housewives. Instead, both are independent, unique, and driven women. They are women who seek to help others but also seek to satisfy their own desires. For Therese, Haynes establishes her as being the polar opposite of expected feminine behavior early in the film as she tells Carol she never cared for dolls as a little girl; she preferred train sets. A stereotypical toy for boys, these trains and Therese’s love of them further colors her relationship with Richard and other men in the film such as Phil (Nik Pajic). Though they pursue her, profess their love for her, kiss her, and help her, Therese does not reciprocate their affection. A stark contrast to the perceived feminine norm of the warm, bubbly, and outwardly emotional woman, Therese is reserved and focused inward. Additionally, she is in no hurry to find a husband and settle down. By her own admission, she is too young and indecisive for that, desiring to instead see the world and take pictures. Her passion for photography is her greatest love next to Carol, representing her desire to pursue only the things she loves and not what society tells her to love. She is not submissive in the way society wants, but rather a representation of a woman who is unwilling to compromise herself for another’s benefit. By the same token, Carol has the very same balance, though it takes her a longer time to get there. Dotingly caring for her daughter before willingly giving up custody and freeing herself to see Therese, this move positions Carol as the antithesis of the housewife (sacrificing family to serve her own desires). Carol is a woman who wishes to be both a caring mother for her daughter and a woman who can be in love with the person of her choice. There is nothing mandatory about her “life against the grain”, but rather a desire for her to not conform to the woman and wife that society wants her to become. For Carol, its two leads are women who run counter to every idea of femininity in the 1950s. The pair refuse to conform to the belief that women must defer to men and sacrifice their interests in the name of becoming child-rearers. Instead, they seek to become individuals and satisfy their own desires, restoring their agency and power in a time in which women so frequently were subservient.

Mildred Pierce

In the television miniseries Mildred Pierce, Haynes also focuses on a woman who subverts the trends of society by not only working her way up from poverty by opening a restaurant, but also doing so without the help of a husband by her side. An adaptation of the novel by James M. Cain, Haynes’ five-part miniseries on the story of Mildred Pierce’s (Kate Winslet) life is a stirring and epic melodrama that casts aside the film noir structure installed by Michael Curtiz in his 1945 film in favor of a strictly adherent adaptation of Cain’s novel. For Haynes, the story of Mildred Pierce is not just a moving story of a woman fighting for a vision and for the love of her ungrateful daughter, but also an example of where classic Hollywood adaptations were limited.


Though the original film is celebrated by a release through the Criterion Collection solidifying its standing in cinephile circles, it is a film hamstrung by the production code. Needing the murder mystery and flashback angle to contain Cain’s novel into a rather abbreviated version that removes the incest, infidelity, and sex from the source material, the original Mildred Pierce is a great film in itself but not an earnest adaptation of Cain’s novel. Haynes restores these sordid elements in his story of a woman fighting against all odds to attain success in the cruel world of 1930s America. His adaptation is not one that uses the topical styles of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood films as he used to depict other eras in Far from Heaven and Wonderstruck or, to a lesser degree, Carol. Rather, it is a miniseries that serves as a representation of the shortcomings of classic cinema. It goes in directions that the 1945 film never could have, just as Poison, Far from Heaven, and Carol explored social issues in a way that was never possible in the eras in which they are set.

Yet, Haynes does not resist cultivating 1930s iconography for the purpose of revealing the plight of women in the era, which serves as the main social concern of Mildred Pierce. Including songs such as ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows’ and ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, mentioning Barbara Stanwyck as a customer of Mildred’s and detailing Veda Pierce’s (Evan Rachel Wood) rise in opera through nightly radio broadcasts, Mildred Pierce is a work deeply indebted to the mainstream culture of the 1930s. It has its pulse on the culture of the world as people celebrate the rise of radio, fall in love with Hollywood stars, and yet must trade the same glitz, glamour, and pride in order to feed themselves and their family in these tough times. The 30s is a time of great destituteness and tragedy, one that is nowhere near as glitzy and glamorous as many of the songs and films of the era may often exude. However, Haynes’ critique of nostalgia for the quaint 1930s family comes in the form of the forgotten woman. First juxtaposing images of the happy Pierce family with Mildred and Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) fighting before they divorce, Haynes moves forward in critiquing this ideal of the American family. In showing Mildred as a divorcee and part of a club that friend Lucy (Melissa Leo) claims to be “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the 4th of July”, Mildred Pierce establishes America of the 1930s as a place that does not embody the America envisioned in the American dream. There is no happy family sitting around the dinner table with a working father and a happy housewife with two perfect kids. Instead, the family of Mildred Pierce is one of a philandering father, a wife who is rendered forgotten by a society that prefers to champion the concept of “family over individuality”, a vindictive and cruel eldest daughter, and a youngest daughter who will be killed by an unknown illness. It is a family marked with tragedy, one which loses two businesses to time and poor choices, and one which is forever doomed to be separated. It is this family that is more in line with the turbulent nature of the average family, but it is not one likely to be mentioned in speeches on the 4th of July championing America as a land of family and opportunity.


It is from here that Haynes launches into critiquing the role of women in the 1930s. Forced to endure the sexual harassment of men by playing along to not make a stir, repeatedly told they have no opportunities to work if it is not in a service position, and often referred to as solely having “looks” that come to mean more than their talent or brains, the women of Mildred Pierce are regarded as second-class citizens. Even a man who Mildred loves, Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), is a man who “playfully” suggests he will rape her and warns her about how her actions may lead to a “ravenous brute” taking advantage. In line with the critique of Christmas nostalgia in Carol, Haynes even sets a scene at Christmas of Monty and Mildred fighting about how Monty tells young Veda about how he loves the sex with Mildred and loves her mostly for her legs. This objectification of women is often what makes the rise and fall of Mildred’s business so powerful to watch since her business depends on the help and assistance of women in both the front and back of the restaurant as well as in opening additional locations with her female friends running the operations. As with the women of Far from Heaven and Carol, the women of Mildred Pierce are put in positions of subjectivity to men, only to then overcome this limited position to escape the prisons built for them in the kitchen and become women who pursue dreams that defy the patriarchy without fear.

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