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Loneliness and isolation are two of cinema's favorite subjects, and when it comes at the unseen hand of an unbending society all the better.

That misery is often illustrated

through hokey sentimentalism, which has become a staple of Japanese cinema. Even the country's most stalwart egoists and gonzo experimentalists eventually succumb to the siren call of the three-hankie weepy - Takashi Miike being the exception proving the rule. Such is the case with An, the latest by art house and Cannes favorite Naomi Kawase (Still the Water, The Mourning Forest). Fans of Kawase's tunnel-visioned intimacy and repeating cherry blossom (or water, or forests, or cloud) motifs will be thrilled. The director's signature focus on nature and how we relate to it envelops the sentimentalism.

An - red bean jam - is Kawase's first non-autobiographical meditation on life in Japan's margins and as such it bears a distance that is uncharacteristic of her. The marginalized characters here are a wounded, retiring dorayaki vendor, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) and the elderly, mysterious Tokue (Kirin Kiki), who comes to his door one day asking for a job. Joining them is a high school girl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), who forms the third generation of the makeshift family. Naturally, everyone has a secret that sets them apart from rigid Japanese society, and naturally they find a fulfilling connection among themselves.

Not quite in the tradition of great emotional food movies like Eat Drink Man Woman or Like Water for Chocolate, which use food as a way into the characters' headspace, the slight An is a simple tale about truly living in the moment. It's all soft edges and sunshine breaking through the blossoms, with the saintly Tokue at the center. Kawase's assured hand guides the narrative to its inevitable end, even if there are times she clearly struggles the conventions demanded of the genre.

In contrast to Kawase's warm and fuzzies, Cate Blanchett's brand of icy sophistication is precisely what Carol, a 1950s suburban romance whose dual personality chomps at the bit of turgid melodrama while maintaining an elegant, highbrow faade, demanded. From his shorts like Superstar to the glam-rock revelry of Velvet Goldmine (his best) and the Douglas Sirk-ian race romance Far from Heaven, director Todd Haynes is unapologetically operatic and Carol is comfortably in his wheelhouse.

When isolated, closeted housewife, Carol Aird (Oscar nominee Blanchett) meets Therese Belivet (Oscar nominee Rooney Mara), an equally isolated "shop girl" still unsure of who she is and what she wants from life, it is the chance meeting that will change both their lives dramatically. In the middle of a divorce, Carol decides to explore the uncannily strong attraction she feels to Therese, who returns her affection. Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), needless to say, is not thrilled. Again, it's a simple story but this time it involves two women firmly in the mainstream of society choosing to move out of it and accept whatever consequences arise. And true to Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking 1952 novel, it has a happy ending.

Carol is a well-mounted film; a handsome picture with impeccable period production design, spectacular costuming (by multiple Oscar-winner Sandy Powell) and an evocative score by Carter Burwell. Edward Lachman's gauzy, romantic 16mm cinematography almost caresses Blanchett (looking radiant) and Mara and all the parts fit together perfectly. But there's a disconcerting lack of engagement in the proceedings. The cast, including Chandler and Sarah Paulson as Carol's best friend Abby, are uniformly deft at signally repressed emotions and simmering frustration with post-war social mores, but Haynes' production is so sumptuously polished it deflects emotional connection. Blanchett is perfectly cast and Mara is pleasantly accessible, a first for her, and the two pine beautifully for each other in a story that's less a romance than about a romance struggling to be realized. Carol is good, but it should have been great.

 Life in the shadows

To sample more of Lorette E. Roberts' work visit www.loretteroberts.com  The sketch published here is by courtesy of Blacksmith Books www.blacksmithbooks.com

(HK Edition 01/29/2016 page11)

Browse photography at Denver.Gallery.