Todd Haynes

6.5 Poison (1991)
7.0 Safe (1995)
6.5 Velvet Goldmine (1998)
7.1 Far From Heaven (2002)
6.9 I'm Not There (2007)
7.0 Carol (2015)
5.5 Wonderstruck (2017)
7.0 Dark Waters (2019)
6.8 Todd Haynes: May December (2023)

Todd Haynes (USA, 1961) rose to prominence with the short 46-minute film Superstar (1987) that used Barbie dolls to narrate the tragic life of a pop star.

He directed: the science-fiction horror movie Poison (1991), a pioneering "queer movie" inspired by the novels of Jean Genet, the 45-minute Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), Safe (1995), the rock musical Velvet Goldmine (1998), the period melodrama Far from Heaven (2002), the musical biopic I'm Not There (2007), the TV mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011), adapted from James Cain's 1941 novel, another period melodrama, a romantic lesbian drama, Carol (2015), based on Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt" (1952), Wonderstruck (2017), the adaptation of Brian Selznick's graphic novel of 2011, and the thriller Dark Waters (2019), based on a real story.

Safe (1995) is a socio-psychological thriller, part satire of the wealthy middle class of Los Angeles and partly an analysis of the condition of housewives in the age of affluence.

The story takes place in 1987. Carol and her husband live in a large mansion in the suburbia. Carol is an attractive woman who, from the beginning, looks unhappy: she doesn't enjoy sex with her husband Greg and she doesn't enjoy the aerobic class with her superficial girlfriends, all wealthy housewives. She visits her best friend Linda who tells her that her brother just died. Back home she finds that the furniture store delivered a couch of the wrong color and phones them to complain. She hears on the radio and television new-age gurus and religious preachers. While she's driving on the highway, she almost asphyxiates because a truck's exhaust is emitting terrible fumes. She has to stop in an underground parking lot because she is coughing uncontrollably. Her best friend Linda convinces her to try an unscientific fruit diet that is supposed to be healthy. During a dinner with a couple of friends Carol spaces out. She sees a doctor who diagnoses simple stress (although her life appears to be exactly the opposite of stressful). Greg has a ten-year-old son Rory who is Carol's stepson. One day at the hair dresser Carol starts bleeding from her nose. The following morning she vomits while her husband is hugging her. Nonetheless, the doctor confirms that she's healthy and so he sends her to a psychiatrist. She walks outside in the middle of the night until she is scared by a police patrol. Back at the gym she sees a flyer of an organization that takes care of people whose body has been poisoned by "fumes", by the many chemicals that pervade modern life. Carol attends the baby shower of a pregnant friend with all the other girlfriends but suddenly starts shaking and can't breathe. She writes a letter to the organization that posted the flyer. Her husband is part upset by her constant "headache" and part worried about her health. She attends the organization's lecture by video in which the guru talks about healing environmental illness. She sees a new doctor who prescribes a "neutralization diet" but that fails too. She attends another lecture, this time with Greg, in which the organization promotes their toxic-free zone. She is now convinced that her illness is due to the ubiquitous toxic chemicals. She even gives up make-up. Her symptoms worsens and one day she collapses to the floor inside a store and has to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Released from the hospital, she takes a taxi to the organization, Wrenwood. The taxi is not even allowed to enter the property because it would contaminate the air. She drags her suitcases and oxygen tank to her assigned cabin. She meets the director, Claire, and the founder, Peter. The small community behaves like a religious cult, singing songs together and trying group therapy. She doesn't get any better. Peter's theory is that the illness is self-inflicted: that the patience must learn to love him/herself. Greg comes to visit her but she almost faints and blames it on the smell coming from his clothes. One of the patients has died and she moves into his cabin, which was especially built as a "safe house" and looks like an igloo. Greg goes back home and she becomes friend with one of the patients, Chris, who one day organizes a surprise birthday party for her. She is touched but then can only ramble on nonsensical sentences to them. Carol returns to her igloo, looks into the mirror at her disfigured face and says "I love you" to herself.

Far from Heaven (2002) is an impeccable period melodrama filmed partly in strong colors (to emphasize the nostalgic feelings of the woman) and partly in dark, expressionistic environments (to emphasize the psychological turbulence of the man). The drama involves two strands of conflicts grounded in prejudice: racism and shame of homosexuality. It's an elaborate film and only lacks in emotional depth.

The film is set in 1957. Cathy lives in a small town with her husband, their two children (David and little Janice) and their black maid Sybil. Out of the blue her husband Frank is arrested for driving intoxicated. She has to go and pick him up at the police station. The following day she gets interviewed by a magazine as the perfect housewife. The interviewer congratulates on being married to an advertisement executive and the photographer takes a few stereotypical pictures of her. The interview is interrupted when they see a black young man in the garden. Cathy confronts him and he tells her that he is Raymond, the son of her old gardener Otis and that Otis just died. One day, Cathy sees an unknown black man walking in her yard, Raymond Deagan, her late gardener's son. That evening Frank stays out till late. He has a drink with colleagues and then walks into a movie theater. He nervously follows two gays who walk out of the theater to a gay bar. The magazine comes out with Cathy's story in the front page. One night Cathy has three girlfriends over. They drink a bit and gossip about their husbands. She listens as they "complain" that their husbands wants to have sex so often. The wind blows away her scarf and Raymond finds it. Raymond tells Cathy that he is the single father of a little girl, Sarah, after his wife died. One evening Frank calls from the office that he has to stay at work till late. Cathy decides to drive and bring him dinner at the office. She is shocked to find him kissing a man. Back home she maintains a dignified composure as he confesses to having problems and promises to see a doctor about it. The doctor warns Frank that turning him into a "normal" person may require psychiatric sessions and electroshock treatment. Frank accepts. Cathy keeps living a normal life. One day she attends an art show organized by her best friend Eleanor and runs into Raymond and his little daughter Sarah. People stare at them, a white woman and a black man chatting like good old friends. Cathy throws her annual home party, attended by all their friends. She has to withstand some racist conversations. Frank gets drunk and carelessly insults her in front of everybody. She minimizes the incident. After the party, when they are alone, he hugs her and kisses her, but can't have an erection. She comforts him and he slaps her. She still tries to lead a normal life. The following day Eleanor notices the bruise on her forehead but Cathy still hides the truth. However, Raymond is working in the garden and he sees her sobbing. She opens up with him the way she couldn't open up with her best friend. She accepts his invitation to follow him on an errand outside town. A friend, Mona, who is having her car serviced at a mechaic shop, sees her with him in the black neighborhood. He takes her to a bar, a white woman in a bar for black men. She is initially uncomfortable but then she even asks him to dance. The following day the whole town is gossiping about her. She doesn't notice anything until her daughter Janice is shunned by all the other girls. Eleanor calls to warn her. Frank has heard the gossip and is furious, and drunk. Eleanor promises to fire Raymond. Frank also confesses another reason to be upset: the company forced him to take a month of vacation. Eleanor sees Raymond one more time. They meet in a white restaurant but they have to leave because the owner and the patrons stare at them. Eleanor explains to Raymond that their friendship is impossible. He is heartbroken. When he touches just on an arm, a white man across the street shouts at him and threatens him. She walks away. On Christmas day she and Frank decide to go away for a week. At the beach hotel they witness another small racist incident. Frank and Cathy seem to be happy but a young man tempts Frank when he's alone and he can't resist. Meanwhile, Raymond's daughter Sarah is harassed by white children who chase her in a narrow alley and hit her with stones leaving her unconscious. Back home, Frank and Cathy seem to be normal. One day Frank comes home sobbing. He confesses that he is in love with a man and is leaving her. Cathy finally tells the whole truth to Eleanor, and even confesses that talking to Raymond felt liberating to her. Eleanor leaves her convinced that there was something between her and the black man. Now Cathy is really alone and penniless. Her only support is the black maid, Sybil. Sybil tells Cathy of Sarah's incident. Cathy rushes out to visit Raymond and Sarah. Raymond can't find business anymore in that community and has decided to move to his brother's town. Cathy would like to give him hope that some day they can be together but this time it's him to thinks it's impossible. She drives back home in tears. Frank calls in the middle of the night that he is ready to sign the divorce papers. Cathy sees Raymond and Sarah off at the train station.

Carol (2015) is a faithful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt" (1952). It is another period melodrama, but mostly an intimate portrait, or maybe two intimate portraits. Visually striking, the period reconstruction is impeccable. The slow pace lends a nostalgic elegance to the story.

The film is set in New York in 1952. A man called Jack walks into a restaurant and recognizes a friend, Therese, who is sitting at a table with another woman, Carol. The two seem melancholic. Jack offers to give Therese a ride to a party. Carol leaves them. There is tension in the air.
A flashback shows us what happened between Therese and Carol. It is Christmas time. Therese is a humble and simple girl who is pursued by Richard, who is buying boat tickets for them to travel together to Europe. She works as a salesgirl in a department store. Carol, wearing an expensive fur, walks in and starts chatting with her. Carol forgets (intentionally) her gloves on the counter. Later Therese drinks with friends and meets Dannie, a young man who works at the New York Times. Therese's hobby is photography, although she has a very cheap camera, and Dannie offers to help her find a job at the newspaper. Carol lives in a large mansion with her husband Harge and their little daughter Rindy. It is obvious that Carol and Harge don't get along. Carol phones the department store to thank Therese for returning her gloves and invites her to lunch. During that lunch Carol tells Therese that she is divorcing while Therese tells her of Richard who has proposed to her. Carol invites Therese to visit her. Later Abby gives Carol a ride to a cocktail party where Carol meets their friend Jeanette. Meanwhile, Therese visits Dannie at the New York Times but rejects Dannie when he tries to kiss her. Harge is jealous of Abby: we understand that Abby and Carol were lesbian lovers. When Harge is out, Carol picks up Therese and drives her to her mansion. The two are just beginning to know each other when Harge arrives unexpected. Finding a woman in the house, he makes a scene. Harge intends to take little Rindy with him for the holidays. They quarrel in front of Therese who listens embarrassed. Later the lawyer tells Carol that she is in trouble: Harge has filed for sole custody of the daughter accusing Carol of living an immoral life. Carol will not be allowed her daughter until they go to court in a few months. Richard is still pursuing Therese but sense that something has changed. Therese is moody and cannot commit to their European trip. Carol visits Therese at her humble apartment and gives her a Christmas gift: a brand new camera. Carol invites Therese to go on a road trip with her and Therese accepts on the fly. Richard is shocked and heartbroken. They take off and Harge looks in vain for Carol at Abby's place. In one of the motels where they stay they meet a traveling salesman, Tommy. On New Year's Eve, Carol and Therese finally have sex. The next morning Carol receives a telegram. She reads it and, furious, picks up a revolver from her suitcase and barges into the room next to theirs: Tommy is there, getting ready to leave, after having taped them having sex. He has already shipped the tapes to Harge. The following day Carol disappears. Abby flies in to pick up Therese and drive her back to New York. Abby explains to Therese that she and Carol had an affair five years earlier. Carol needs to stay away from Therese if she ever wants to see her little daughter. Therese is heartbroken. Therese joins the New York Times and develops her pictures of Carol. Dannie is impressed and encourages her to start a portfolio. Carol is back with Harge, willing to live a false boring unhappy rich life as long as she can be with her daughter. She is also seeing a psychoanalyst. When Harge and Carol meet with their lawyers for the final arrangements, Harge is shocked to hear that Carol's lawyers has built a theory according to which Carol has been healed by the psychologist and Carol's "illness" was due to Harge's mistreatment of her. Now it's Carol's lawyer who demands custody of their little daughter. Carol interrupts the argument and tells them that she wants what is best for her daughter: she is willing to let Harge have sole custody of Rindy as long as she can see her often. Now that she's free, Carol invites Therese to tea and explains to her that she has moved into an apartment and found a job. Carol invites Therese to move in with her. Therese says no. That's when Therese's friend Jack recognizes Therese (the first scene of the film). Carol leaves. Therese gets in the car with Jack and goes to a party where she sees Richard dancing with his new girlfriend. Therese is melancholy. She leaves the party and heads for the restaurant where Carol is having dinner with friends. Carol smiles.

May December (2023), inspired by a real-life scandal about a teacher who was jailed after having sex with a 13-year-old pupil, imagines that the teacher, upon being released from jail, did marry the former minor and they started a family together. The film picks up many years later, when someone has decided to make a movie of their story.

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